Finding His Way
by Sonja Carberry
Back in Omaha after a seven-month trek through South America, UNO grad James Peters has cut the hair he let grow into an unruly mop and trimmed his bushy beard to a midnight shadow. In a yellow button-down shirt and crisp jeans, he looks very 20-something Omaha.
But part of Peters is still south of the border.
Though three weeks back in the states, for example, Peters still has to stop himself from putting extra restaurant napkins in his back pocket.
"Toilet paper is hard to come by there," he explains.
Experience and perspective, however, are not. Peters backpacked through a handful of countries on around $8,000, staying in hostels and riding cramped "steel box" buses. He sums up his travel style as "part planning, part improvisation," and "what you do when you have more time than money."
Along the way he filled two journals and a blog with his experiences at soccer games, historical sites, festivals and much more.
High points included mountain biking from La Paz to Corico, Bolivia, on the "world's most dangerous road," spending some surreal days in the desert-like salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, and watching the Perito Moreno Glacier calve near Patagonia, Argentina.
In an unexpected side trip, Peters joined an expedition to Antarctica, where penguins waddled by as he shivered in "every layer of clothing I had."
Some experiences weren't exactly guidebook material. Sitting on a park bench with a homeless man in Santiago, Chile, Peters gave up a page of his journal so the man could write a somewhat confused thanks for what was left of Peters' dinner. And on his last day abroad, on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Peters found out what he'd do if someone tried to pickpocket him.
"I shoved him against a wall, hard," the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Peters says. "I was yelling at him in Spanish, ‘What is your hand doing in my bag?'"
Peters' goal, by all accounts realized, was to get outside his comfort zone. "I didn't go to a lot of clubs. I tried to do the things you can't do at home," he says.
Peters, 26, had been living reasonably comfortably, putting himself through college by driving rusty cars and living with "Ma and Pa."
He played baseball for the Mavs as a pitcher, walking on and eventually earning the No. 2 starting post. "The coaches were great," he says. "They challenge you and will not settle for mediocrity, and every year they have improved. UNO is very lucky to have the coaches they have."
After graduating in May 2005 with a master's degree in management information systems (he earned a BS in 2003), he found himself dodging the inevitable question: "So what's next?"
Peters didn't have a ready answer.
After church one Sunday, a friend of his mother's gave Peters an Omaha World-Herald article about Dean Jacobs, a Fremont, Neb., resident who spent two years backpacking the world. Jacobs had lowered his expenses by staying with host families through an organization called Servas International.
Peters was inspired and called Jacobs to find out more.
"I realized this is something I could do now or when I'm 75," Peters says.
His parents were less than enthusiastic, primarily for safety reasons. "We tried talking him out of it," says Daniel Peters, a two-time UNO grad (BS, real estate, 1979; MBA, 1981). "But that was almost futile. It was his life and his money."
Peters had saved money through various odd jobs. "All of my friends saved for cars, I saved for a trip," Peters says. He worked as an intern at Union Pacific and did some video editing for a project collaboration between UNO's Peter Kiewit Institute and the National Park Service's Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail. He mowed yards in the summer and shoveled driveways in the winter. And he worked in the clubhouse for the Omaha Royals baseball team. "Being a clubbie is like being the minion or babysitter for 30 pro ballplayers," he says. "It's a great job, if you like baseball."
By August last year he was on his way, attending a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to bolster his college Spanish. On Sept. 10, 2005, he took a one-way flight from Mexico City to Lima, Peru, and officially began his winding journey through Peru, Panama, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Antarctica.
It was in Mendoza, Argentina, that Peters used his new membership with Servas, which encourages cultural exchange by connecting travelers with host families. Peters was the 401st guest of Francisco Morón, a well-traveled chain smoker with a guest house and a scratch-happy kitten named Chopin. Morón regaled Peters with stories of his own travels over steak and pasta. They also talked about their families and their countries.
"It really gave me a chance to work on my Spanish," Peters says. "And it just shows you that people are people, no matter where you are. Everyone has at least one good joke."
In Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, Peters stumbled onto an opportunity to join an expedition to Antarctica. "I thought, 'I'm not going to be any closer to Antarctica than I am right now,'" he says.
Peters boarded the Marco Polo with 500 other passengers, some backpackers, but most retirees. After riding a zodiac boat from ship to shore, Peters stood on Half Moon Island to observe chinstrap penguins, seals and albatrosses in what amounted to a real-life zoo.
"You can feel like Ernest Shackelton until you realize you've got three bars on the ship," he says.
Today in Omaha, Peters recently mulled over a job offer, trying to reconcile a full-time position and its two weeks' vacation time with his desire to continue traveling. He turned down the offer. "I'd like to see Asia, India, Africa. I'll hit Europe last," he says.
His parents notified him that he has two weeks to move out, and Peters jokes that they'll donate his belongings to Goodwill to give him a push. But he's not too concerned. In fact, he's pretty relaxed.
"I think a lot of people in the states don't realize how good they have it. They're so caught up in materialism and ostentation," Peters says. "In Argentina, they have no money, but they go out with friends two to three times a week."
Peters is still organizing his impressions of South America and the people he met in his third journal and on his blog. It's something he doesn't want to slip away. To anyone considering extended travel, Peters says it's worth every penny.
"You can get more out of that $8,000 traveling than you would out of, say, a car."
James Peters, who also rides a unicycle for fun, kept a blog of his travels at
theunicycleguy.blogspot.com. A few observations:
• "Bolivian Time can mean anything. Ten minutes in Bolivian Time can mean two hours in American Time."
• "South American cabbies must think that gringos are thee laziest people in the world and honk at us all the time. They honk at you when you least need them and are never around when you do."
• "Women spectators at soccer games have some of the most vulgar mouths . . . You cannot believe what comes out of their mouths."
• "Are South American carnival workers looked at as differently as they are in the USA[?]"
• "Be nice to people you meet along the way because I guarantee that you will see them again."
Email author Sonja Carberry at email@example.com
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