I didnt just drive through Mexico to sit on the beach.
I went on a expedition to experience what it's like to Road trip outside of the USA.
To challenge myself and take a risk.
To do something most people are scared to do and come face to face with my own fears.
I found myself playing Piano in front of people who have never seen a piano in their lives,
Combating foreign stomach illnesses (multiple times),
Learning Spanish by embarrassing myself and making a million mistakes,
Meeting people from all over the world and hearing stories from the locals,
Getting robbed and surviving for weeks with only a few dollars,
This was the most difficult journey of my entire life...
If you are not familiar with my story, to be brief:
I quit my job back in 2010 to build a lifestyle around the things I love most: Music, Travel, and People. (Read the long version here)
This was my 4th Piano Roadtrip and to add a little challenge I decided to drive from New York City to Panama with my upright piano.
And it was no easy feat...
While planning this trip, I heard so many stories about how dangerous it is to travel in Mexico and Central America.
My friends mother even called to convince me that I shouldn't go.
I canceled the trip twice.
But nonetheless, I persisted and went through with it and it was a the most difficult thing I have ever attempted.
I left New York City on February 2nd, 2013 with my friend Arthur Nazarian who is a photographer.
New York City to Laredo, Texas
2,100 miles +/-
We took about 6 days to get to New Orleans before the Mardi Gras festivities began.
From the first day, there were serious problems. The plan was to meet with my Piano teacher who is also a good friend of mine to record some music. Unfortunately when we got there, his main power box broke and we couldn't do anything but sip Bourbon and talk about why music is so important.
Later on that night, Arthur's shoulder rig broke, forcing us to have to drive all the way back to New York City and pick up a new shoulder rig.
The drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains was beautiful...
We Couchsurfed at an artists home named Sophie in Athens, GA. She had some really strange sculpture scattered throughout the area which made it a bit spooky. But she also had 20 Pecan trees in her backyard which led us to gathering handfuls of Pecans and feasting through the entire drive to New Orleans.
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world mainly because its a big city with a small town feel and its so underrated. There is so much culture there! You can walk through the French Quarters and meet artists, musicians, and locals who are very open and willing to talk to you. No doubt, it is one of the most cultured cities in the United States.
Hanging out with Interstellar Transmission
I met the guys of Interstellar Transmission back in 2011 on my first road trip through the US. They have been traveling the US doing shows out of their school bus.
Their music is an eclectic mix of classical, rock, and psychedelic sounds in long form compositions. I like how they explore a variety of unique scales and modes from different cultures around the world. They have definitely opened my eyes to a new level of looking at music.
New Orleans Pianist, Tom McDermott
I've taken a few lessons from Tom in the past. He showed me the different types of rhythms that exist in New Orleans music. These rhythms are the basis of modern music that stem from Caribbean, European, and African cultures.
New Orleans Vocalist, Meschiya Lake with Tom McDermott
Meschiya Lake is a very popular vocalist in New Orleans. You can find her performing in New Orleans every week.
We found a bunch of Gypsy Jazz Musicians playing on Frenchman Street one night. They came from France to explore New Orleans for a few months. Great music!
Mardi Gras 2013
Everyone hit the streets on Mardi Gras day to bring on the festivities. Lots of drinking in the streets, dancing, marching bands, and some incredible costumes.
San Antonio, Texas
Radio Interview for "The Story"
I did a Radio interview for "The Story" while playing in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. It was one of my favorite interviews and ended up on NPR around the country. Listen to this radio interview that aired on NPR in more than 100 cities.
Laredo, TX to San Jose, Costa Rica
Entering into Mexico
I will never forget the first day in Mexico. It was a day filled with confusion, stress, and nervousness.
Within the first 2 hours of being in Mexico, an "officer" or what looked like one ask me for a bribe.
We played it off like we didnt understand a word of what he was saying and after wasting 10 minutes of his time, he let us go. But at one point he had my license in his hands and threatened to take it away from me.
My original plan was to enter Mexico and Couchsurf the first day, but no one messaged me back. So when we arrived, we had no internet connection, no phones, the driving was hectic, and we didnt speak much Spanish. It was as if we were aliens in an entirely new world.
Finally at the last minute we found a place to crash, but it took at least an hour to find the house.
It was such a relief to speak with people who spoke English and who were able to help us find our way.
I was really unprepared for the craziness of Latin America.
Continue reading what happens when we enter Mexico...
Driving through the Desert
Fake Cop Cars were there to curb speeding
The goal was to get to Guatemala and focus on meeting other musicians that lived nearby.
Arthur had limited time to travel with me so we decided to focus on Antigua, Guatemala. It took about 5 full days of driving before we reached Guatemala. It was tiring....
Welcome to the Republic of Guatemala
I got a Stomach Bacterial infection my first day in Guatemala.
Sour stomach, nausea, dizziness, feeling of restlessness, vomiting, diarrhea. I never want to feel like that ever again in my entire life.
Apparantley I ingested some of the old water that was in my cooler.
I had to go to the hospital in Quetzaltenango. They put me on a stretcher and threw an IV into my arm. It only cost $25.
That night was very difficult. I spent the entire day vomiting and i didn't have enough Guatemalan money, so we had to search around for a place that would take my American dollars. For some reason no one wanted to take my $20 bill.
We finally arrived in Antigua, Guatemala. Our luck changed for a few days and we went with the flow.... There were a lot of Marimba players everywhere including this massive 9 piece band.
Marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala. The instrument is made up of wooden bars and resonators that are struck with mallets similar to a Xylophone. It originates from Africa and was introduced to Central America and the Caribbean from African slaves that were transported there in the 17th Century.
Antigua is a very special city for Latin America. It is one of the major hubs for the Catholic Church which has a strong presence in the city.
In 1717, a major earthquake left much of Antigua in ruins which is where the city get its charm.
Today, Antigua is a historic landmark and a piece of preserved history. The city is architecturally very beautiful with stone structures, churches, and monuments. I particularly love the Spanish colonial houses which are one level with a central area that is open to the elements.
There is also an incredible market in the center of the town where you can eat some of the finest fruit this planet has to offer.
Antigua is where we met Miguel who is a musician and Marimba teacher. He plays the marimba with his children and makes a living through his music. He lives in a small town outside of Antigua called Comalapa, Guatemala. There are a lot of windy roads and hills to go through to get to his hand built house.
Miguel told us about the Guatemalan civil war and how it has changed the lives of the indigenous people throughout the years. Guatemala is a militaristic country with soldiers and guns seen everywhere throughout the country. There is also a lot of corruption and crime that occurs there. The last 40 years have been very difficult for Guatemalens and its sad to see these people working so hard without much of a reward.
Read more about the Guatemalean civil war that took place for more than 30 years with the United States involvement.
Indigenous Mayan Ceremony in the small town of Comalapa, Guatemala
March Festivals and Procession
Every Sunday in March there would be a 50 piece marching band playing slow music walking through the streets. Massive ornate displays of Jesus and Mary were held up and swayed back and forth. There would be hundreds of people dressed in Purple tunics marching along with them and everyone else on the side walks watching the event.
All of this led to the major festival on Semana Santa.
Some days were so exhausting that I would go to sleep at 8 PM: Especially the days where I was playing piano. The driving was tough and the traffic was difficult.
We drove to Guatemala City and I found a nice spot on the Avenida Sexta to play my piano. This is a street where the major retailers are located and hundreds of people walk through there each day.
It was very risky because we had all this camera equipment and were walking around with everything in the streets.
We heard plenty of horror stories of people getting robbed in broad daylight so it was a bit risky.
Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Even the security guards told us to be careful.
Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
There are multiple roads to Lago de Atitlan. Because the lake is so large and the terrain is so mountainous, it is very difficult to get around that area. Its about 2 hours minimum to get to Lago de Atitlan from any direction.
The roads leading to Panajachel were very windy and difficult. But the views were spectacular.
There are 2 massive Volcanos located at Lago de Atitlan.
As soon as I saw this lookout point, I knew I had to play there.
I like to play on the edge of cliffs and at scenic points because it inspires me when I play. The music comes out totally different when I am in a relaxing natural environment without distractions.
Driving to Santa Tecla
Santa Tecla, El Salvador
In Santa Tecla I met with Marco and Esmerelda where I couchsurfed at their home.
When I arrived, I got sick again from eating Pupusas and vomited all night. (Everyone else was eating them without a problem!) Luckily I had the antibiotics from the last time I was sick...
Marco introduced me to the Mayor of Santa Tecla and got me permit to play at their weekly street fair at the Paseo del Carmen.
This girl was so inspired by my project that she drew this for me. She was such a sweet person.
El Tunco, El Salvador
The day I visited El Tunco, El Salvador, 3 people died while surfing at high tide. The waves were very intense and there are hidden rocks scattered throughout the area. This is NOT the place to learn how to surf.
I left El Salvador with a surfer friend named Bryce, who I met at Playa El Tunco.
A Day in Honduras
Throughout the entire trip I didnt spend a single night in Honduras. The border guards tried to embezzle money from us every time we passed through. One time they got me for not wearing a seat belt and settled for a $5 bribe.
Below is the major highway connecting Nicaragua with El Salvador. We had to weave in an out of potholes every 2 minutes.
The drive from El Tunco, El Salvador to Leon, Nicaragua was about 9 hours with 2 border crossings.
We stayed in Leon at a hostel with tons of backpackers and travelers hanging about. Many people said that Leon is what Costa Rica was like before the big influx of expats looking to buy up property... I'm not really sure if I believe that, but then again, I never really explored Leon for a long period of time.
The next morning we decided to hit up the beach and go surfing... To our unfortunate dismay, that didn't turn out the way we wanted.
Getting Robbed at Las Penitas, Nicaragua
They took everything I had except the piano, some clothes, and my van...
After getting robbed in Las Penitas all I wanted to do was get the hell out of Leon and go to another city.
At this stage of the journey, I had no passport, no credit/debit cards, some clothes, my piano and $150. I didnt want to call my parents to send me bailout money. I wanted to wing it and see what happens. So I decided to see if I could continue my journey southward with the limited amount of possessions I had.
I stayed in Granada for 4 days with my friends Fabio and Bryce, ate $2 meals and had a dorm room bed for $5.
I pulled out my piano on Saturday night on the Casada where there is a row of restaurants and bars. I would play piano for 20 minutes at one place and then roll over to the next, talking to some of the European tourists who were drinking beers.
One of the restaurant owners paid me $10 to play in front of his restaurant for a half hour... I probably made around $30 total for the 2 hours I played.
There are a lot of poor homeless kids walking around I tried to get them to jam with me. (Thanks to Janneke from Holland for the photos)
Singing and making music in Nicaragua
Bryce and I after the robbery...
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
I stayed at the Casa de Olas in San Juan del Sur and they allowed me to bring my Piano into the bar area and I did a nightly 1 hour performance. It was a great time with great people.
Even this Monkey had a good time. She stole my beer and started drinking it!
1,600 KM exploration of Costa Rica
Two weeks before arriving my cousin who lives in California calls me up and says that he wants to meet up with me in San Jose, Costa Rica. This is when things turned from a work trip into a vacation.
We did tours, saw volcanoes, did plenty of hiking, Zoo's, all the beautiful beaches, scuba diving, Corcovado National Park... You name it, we did it.
Even the Rafting Guide is flipping out! Haha!!
See more of the exploration in Costa Rica here
Playing in San Jose
I played piano at the Costa Rica Backpackers Hostel in San Jose and had people dancing. I was even able to set up a deal with the hostel to give me a bed in exchange for music and good times.
I also met some amazing people there including this South African traveling Sailor who has been traveling and living in other countries for the last 3 years. His name was Tavish and we had some great moments driving all the way to Puerto Viejo and hanging out in a house on the beach for a week.
We didn't make it to Panama. I literally drove to the border and decided that I had enough. I spent a ton of my savings and had already traveled for almost 6 months.
So I turned around...
San Jose, Costa Rica to Los Angeles, California
and Back to New York City...
Brando arrived via plane to San Juan Del Sur with a friend named Fallon.
I met with my family in El Salvador and they took me to this resort to play while the sun was setting.
I made about $40 while playing for an hour. I orchestrated my playing with the movement of the sun, it was a powerful experience.
I also stopped over near Playa El Cuco because a bunch of people in Costa Rica told me to stop there.
It wasnt much of a beach and the experience was kind of lousy, however, along the road we saw this incredible look out point and I pulled out my piano to experience the landscape of El Salvador.
Traveling North through Guatemala
San Pedro de Atitlan, Guatemala
The roads to San Pedro de Atitlan were very windy. Some parts were filled with potholes and massive bumps where you could only drive 5 MPH to get through.
Playing Piano in the mountains of Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Semuc Champey is located in the dense mountains of Northern Guatemala. There are no real roads there, only carved out dirt and rocky paths. You have to drive really slow or risk damaging your vehicle.
One humid morning at 8 AM, I decided to bring out the piano while driving on a long dirt road in the rainforest near Semuc Champey.
Every time I play piano in an environment like this, the music just comes out of me without any hesitation.
Another Incredible drive was from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to San Cristobal, Mexico.
Absolutely Stunning!! See: 10 Incredible drives in Central America and Mexico
I played piano in flip flops while I was in San Cristobal. At that point, I was in Latin America for more than 4 months and had adjusted to the laid back lifestyle....
The Drive from San Cristobal to Oaxaca was long and there was a roadblock due to a protest of labor workers.
However, we were driving Above the Clouds!
I made some friends while hanging at the Mezcalera one Saturday night and they really showed me a good time.
They even got me a paid gig at a bar that paid 800 Pesos for an hour and a half.
Took a little detour and visited the Mayan ruins of Monte Alban which is located just outside Oaxaca city.
Its incredible to imagine what these massive Mayan civilizations existed thousands of years ago and what they managed to construct and create.
From Oaxaca to Arizona, I spent very little time on that part of the trip because I had to rush to get back to Los Angeles to shoot a commercial for Goodyear Latin America.
Most of the land was desert and very hot/dry terrain-- There really wasnt much to see and not much to stop for either.
Welcome back to the USA!
When I finally returned to the US, I'll never forget the feeling. it was as if all this extra weight was taken off my shoulders.
Many people told me to race through Northern Mexico because that is where all the murder incidents have occurred. I was fearful of driving through those parts and I always had the thought int he back of mind that something bad could happen at any second.
Once we made it over the border, I immediately felt a sense of relief to be back in the USA. I spent 5 months traveling through Latin America living an entirely different lifestyle than back home.
This was a symbol of finishing one chapter of my story, and beginning a new one.
I didnt spend much time in Arizona. The temperature was in the upper 90's and there didnt seem like much going on in Tucson.
So we left after a few hours and a nice Vegetarian meal.
San Diego, California
I'm not a huge fan of Los Angeles but Abbot Kinney received us very well. I played for a few hours while people strolled through the streets.
Los Angeles, CA to New York City
Nothing compares to the feeling I get when i get to play my piano on the edge of a cliff or in the mountains as the sun is setting. Nothing like it.
Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz is one of my top 5 favorite cities in North America. One day I hope to have a home out there.
If you walk the streets of Santa Cruz with an open mind, you will meet some amazing people and maybe learn a few interesting things.
I couchsurfed at this Bluegrass musicians house and we got to jam and discuss music the entire time. There are so many good people in Santa Cruz.
San Francisco, California
A friend that I met in Wisconsin in 2011 invited me to come play at the school she works at. The kids requested songs from videos games and sci-fi TV shows. I tried to please them by playing classical and jazz and even did a presentation on the importance of music in our lives. It was a very rewarding experience.
Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Kansas City, Missouri
When I get to the midwest I usually get anxious and drive straight through, but it was a weekend and I decided to use Couchsurfing in Kansas City, Missouri to see whats there. I didnt know much about Kansas City but when I arrived I learned that it is an important city for the beginning of modern music, particularly Jazz.
Scott Joplin lived in Missouri who is the father of modern music and just about all the music you listen to today. In my mind Scott Joplin is the one who brought European classical music like Chopin and African rhythms together to form Ragtime. If you listen to Chopin and explore some of Scott Joplins music, you will see incredible similarities. See for yourself.
I played piano at the Ryan Beye foundations block party. Ryan Beye's story is incredibly inspiring to me and reminds us to never wait till you tomorrow to do the things you want to do in your life. Read more about Ryan Beye here.
Total Trip: 21,000+ miles
7 Months on the road
# of Cities Visited: 70+ Cities
# of Cities I played piano in: 18 Cities
Things I learned from this experience:
- Organization and preparation is very helpful. But when traveling you need to have a improvisational mind to be able to tackle anything that may occur. You can eliminate your risk by thinking of possible outcomes and solutions. I did a lot of research before leaving but I still feel like I rushed to leave on this trip. There is never too much planning. However, never let your plans be the final way.
- Better organization of the inside of my Van has always been crucial on my roadtrips. I need to build better hiding spots for my electronics.
- Mexico and Central America are definitely not as dangerous as people say. Travel through these countries and meet the local people. It may give you an entirely new perspective on your life.
- Its is not easy to make a living as a musician while traveling through Latin America...
- The fruit and vegetables in Latin America is much tastier than in America. Traveling through those parts gave me an entirely new perspective on the massive food industry in the United States. In many of these Latin American countries you still buy your produce directly from the farmer. Its beautiful.
- If possible, In the future I will begin to set up gigs before I reach major cities. Doing a mixture of gigs and street performing can help me fund these trips and even make a larger profit. This trip proved to be a major expense on my bank account. I didnt come home with profit like on the $2 Roadtrip, but I did walk away with the adventure of a lifetime and many new friends around the world.