Throughout the last several years of my NFL career, I've taken the time each offseason to take a trip to a different spot in the world and really immerse myself in the culture.
Over the years, I've become a citizen of the world. I've been to so many wonderful places, and seen over 40 countries in my ventures. I've learned a lot about the different cultures of this planet and also a lot about myself. But it's also left me feeling kind of incomplete.
So this year, I challenged myself to become a better me. That's kind of the theme I've taken on in 2015. Part of that is learning the Spanish language. Whenever I tell people that I've been to all these different countries and all these different regions, the next question from a lot of people — particularly those who are bilingual — is, "So what language do you speak?" and for me it's like, "Oh, you got me."
It almost makes me ashamed that I've had a chance to visit all these different places, but I only speak English. The more I've traveled, the more I've found that the rest of the world speaks English, as well as another language. Here in America, most of us only speak English. But as I get older, I want to remain willing to challenge myself — not just my body but my mind. So I took this feeling of almost shame that I felt, and I'm going to use it as encouragement and take the opportunity to learn another language. It's never too late to continue to learn, and I think doing so will help me become the better version of myself that I strive to be.
Going into this offseason, there were only a few regions of the world that I had yet to visit. Sooner or later, I know I want to visit North Africa, and I'm also destined to head to the area around the Mediterranean at some point. But in all my travels, I hadn't been to Central America. So with my goal of learning Spanish in front of me, it all just kind of synced up, and that's where I decided to go earlier this year.
I spent 24 days just experiencing the culture of several different countries and cities. I started in Panama City and worked my way up through Panama. From there I went to Nicaragua, then Guatemala and finished the trip in Belize. It gave me an opportunity to not only embrace and get ready to learn a second language, but also to explore and take beautiful pictures to contribute to my hobby of photography.
The first thing I have to say is that I was received very warmly everywhere I went, and the people there were wonderful to me. I really embraced being there and getting to know them and their cultures — both past and present — and I think that helped me connect with the people. Any time you come across as truly heartfelt, and convey that you want to learn and not exploit the culture, it makes people more willing to share their beliefs and heritage with you.
I received a lot of questions about why I wanted to learn from them. I shared my story about where I've been all over the world and what I've learned from it, and how I believe all these stories and all these experiences have helped make me better. I also talked about 2015 and my whole theme of making myself a better me. I think they could tell I was genuine in my curiousity and desire to learn. When you're able to do that, and you're also a father and a role model to many, that can have a very positive effect on others.
As I mentioned, the trip started in Panama. That was a really interesting experience because I got to see the Panama Canal.
Panama is very rich in culture. If you've ever visited Miami, some of the areas of Panama have a very Miami/South Florida feel to them, especially Panama City. To me, it's almost a carbon copy of Miami in terms of the aesthetic.
The country is rich economically because the world utilizes the area so much via the canal. I got a chance to fly over the canal and see it from an overhead view, which really gives you a great perspective and understanding of how it works, and the significant purpose it plays in the world in terms of trade, exports and imports. It has a huge role in us getting goods that we appreciate.
Since I have already traveled to Costa Rica, from Panama we moved right on to Nicaragua, which is a country that is still is a little rough around the edges. You can still notice the remnants of what they went through in their wars with the guerrillas. They do have some very beautiful patches in the country, but as a whole, they still are not as fully advanced as some of the other countries in Central America, like Costa Rica or Belize. I think that is just a matter of the evolution of the government, and a lack of technological advancement.
But you don't necessarily need those things to succeed and to thrive as a culture, and you certainly don't need those things to enjoy the experience of a new environment. That's what I found in Guatemala.
I really didn't know what to expect going there, and I didn't have high expectations. But once I got there, I fell in love with the country. Now it's somewhere that I can definitely see taking my family or taking just a week hiatus from time to time. It's a very short flight, the food is excellent, and the landscape is beautiful.
The thing that I loved most about Guatemala was that the people are still are very much in touch with their roots in Mayan culture. Anyone who has read my blogs in the past knows I love exploring and learning about ancient cultures, so to get to do that again on this trip was great.
In 2012 I went to Peru and visited the ancient civilizations of the Incas at Machu Picchu. But for this trip to Central America, I kind of went in blind to the history of the people there compared to other areas of the world that I've visited. I was very naive about the technological achievements of the Mayan people.
One of the things I learned on this trip is that the Mayans were a very vast population and the true rulers of the region in their day. Their empire extended all the way into North America at one point. The Mayans are known for their calendar and they understood how the different seasons were going to impact the world. The scientific achievement of the Mayan calendar and their understanding of the cycle through counting days — it was just mind-boggling, and really impressive to realize how advanced they were even without any machinery.
The other thing that really stood out to me while learning about Mayan culture was how very appreciative they were of the land and animals that they lived amongst. Although they worshipped many different forms of God, they were still very conscious of how they were all intertwined together in the circle of life. That gave them a unique respect for the land, which reminded me of my travels in Africa, where that also was a prominent theme.
It's cool to be able to tie everything together about the way they lived back then through my travels to different countries and civilizations. It's really eye-opening when you see how advanced a lot of different cultures were, compared to the technology that we have today.
The experience made me realize that although I don't believe in all of the same things as the Mayan people, I can appreciate the way that they truly believe they're one with the Earth. They're very conscious of not wasting things and not taking the Earth for granted, because we only get one of them. The people there still practice that belief on a day-to-day basis — not only through their actions, but through the respect and appreciation they show in return to the visitors and tourists who are there.
It makes you just really think about the things that you care about and things that you believe in. Are you as passionate and vocal about those things as they are about what they believe in? It also made me want to continue to travel and explore.
I still really want to go to Egypt and to the Galapagos Islands. One is South America and the other is in Northern Africa — two completely different sides of the world — but I think both have hidden gems that will reveal a lot of things I wish to know about not only the human society, but about the world itself. Egypt obviously has a rich and noteworthy history, and Charles Darwin wrote a lot about the Galapagos Islands and the animals that are only found there. So depending on what you believe in, if you're a scientific person or you're a religious person, I think those two areas both hide a lot of history.
My travels through Guatemala and then Belize weren't only about history. I did take plenty of time to appreciate the here and now.
In Guatemala, we hiked quite a bit. I hiked two volcanoes. One of them was the Mombacho Volcano. Then we hiked a smaller one that was near a lake. Being up there allowed me to appreciate that it's a very beautiful country with lots of contrasts. One of the biggest lakes was reminiscent of Lake Tahoe, which is not too far from my hometown.
That area has a number of volcanoes that are still active, and beautiful lakes. Along those lakes there are small communities that are still occupied by what we would consider tribal groups. I had a chance to visit one of the communities about 30 minutes south of Guatemala City in a beautiful setting. It was a really small, quaint city, surrounded by three volcanoes. One of those volcanoes is Mount Fuego, and it's very active. You could see it release gases on a daily basis. I got some amazing pictures of that with my camera. I also got to talk to some of the people there. It was just a great experience.
The food there was also pretty outstanding. Mexican food and Spanish food in general are my favorite cuisines to eat. I think that's probably the influence of the West Coast in my life. So it was great to experience some authentic food from that culture in Guatemala.
Much of the food involved corn tortillas, which also traces back to the Mayans. (They believed they come from corn.) So I learned that they eat corn tortillas with every meal of the day. I was just a little bit over the corn tortillas by the time we left there, but I also had a lot of really good beef and pork. It was a lot of food that you eat with your hands. It may not have been five-star fancy, but it was very comfortable.
It played into just being at one with the Earth, not having to impress anybody, not having to do anything that had a symbol of being established.
Because of all those experiences, Guatemala is one of those places in the world that I have fallen in love with, as well as Belize. But Belize was for a totally different reason. My time in Belize revolved around relaxation and the water. We spent most of our time on the coast on the Caribbean side.
The cuisine there was excellent because it really revolves around the water and the fish that live in it. It has a true Caribbean feel to it. All those locations on the Caribbean have that touch of British influence, because at one point the land was owned by the Britain. What I didn't realize was that Belize was occupied by the British until the '90s. So everyone there speaks English.
That area is also home to the second-largest barrier reef in the world, so I've now been able to visit the top two. About six years ago, when I visited Australia, I swam the Great Barrier Reef. This time I felt more like a pro snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef. My experience in Australia wasn't as enjoyable as I believe it would be now, because I'm a much more experienced open water swimmer. The water was very choppy and difficult to navigate.
This time I was in the water snorkeling the barrier reef for a little under two hours and it was a lot of fun. For about 90 minutes of that time, I was accompanied by two stingrays who were following me around, swimming with me and checking me out. I think they were just as inquisitive about me as I was about them.
It was cool to see the various different types of aquatic life. Australia probably has more different types of creatures, but the Belize Barrier Reef was home to a lot of nurse sharks and yellow-finned tuna, and I had a chance to see some of them really up close and personal.
When I wasn't snorkeling, I was able to just sit there, looking at the beautiful water. The water there is very clear. You can go almost miles into the ocean look down and see a variety of living things in the water. Although you're not quite on a Caribbean island, it still has that feel. It's very tranquil.
I got a lot of thinking done when I was there that week.
Though I did get to explore and learn some amazing things while taking in some incredible sights, sounds and even tastes as I usually do on my offseason trips, this one was a little different.
When I travel, I normally take the time to sit back, be appreciative of what I've accomplished over the year and set new goals for the upcoming year. This off-season actually provided time for me to think back over the things I've accomplished in my career, and ask myself what's left that I want to accomplish.
For me, number one is to be on a Super Bowl winning team. Alongside that is to continue to carry the flag as the NFL's active-leading rusher and to be a spokesman for the running back position, which I'm very passionate about.
So although my goal of being on a winning team has not changed, I think as far as personal goals, I'm not really concerned about what my statistics look like at the end of the year, but where I stand at my position, and how I can use my voice in a positive way.
However things play out, I'm encouraged. I'm always very grateful for the positive feedback I get from my fans, and encouragement in my everyday journey in life. I continue on, confident that my days on this Earth will be long, and confident my blessings will be continue to be vast.