A Travellerspoint blog

February 2004

My life as a consultant

Twelve Hours Is A Long Commute

0 °C
View Work Trips 1997 - 2004 on GregW's travel map.

The Details
Name: Greg Wesson
Current Residence: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Consultant
Hobby: Travel

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Why Travel?

I never traveled much when I was younger. Other than day trips, the only trip I took as a kid was a 3-week road trip with my parents from Toronto to the east coast of Canada. I didn’t get on a plane for the first time until I was 16, and even then it was just an hour-long sightseeing trip in a 4-seat seaplane. During university, I only took one spring-break trip, myself and some friends drove from London, Ontario to Shawnee, Pennsylvania for a ski trip. My first commercial flight was when I was 25 for a business trip to Moncton, New Brunswick.

Travel sounded like something fun, but it was always something for later. There was never enough time or money. There was always something else that I needed to do. But then the world changed.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1999. My mother was 65 and had just been retired for 9 months when she died. At the time I was stuck in a job I hated, spending 50 to 60 hours a week doing tedious work for people I didn’t really like. I put myself in my mother’s place – imagined myself 35 years in the future, at 65 and newly retired. If I were diagnosed with cancer, would I be sitting there thinking about all those things that I had said, “next year, next year, next year?” I quit my job and decided that I wouldn’t put off those things that I wanted.

I realized that the things stopping me from traveling wasn’t the money or the time or any of the things I needed to do. It was that I was scared. Scared of putting myself out in an unfamiliar world.

I remember sitting in my office on a seemingly average Tuesday morning in September of 2001 when someone said, “an airplane hit the World Trade Center.” It was September 11th, 2001, and as the details of the day revealed themselves, I remember one main thought kept going through my head, “I would hate to die at work.” I thought to myself, as I sat watching the replies over and over on CNN, “what if that had been my office building?”

There is no time like the present. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. None of us knows if we have a tomorrow.

It was tough, booking my first big trip to South America. I almost backed out a few times, but I went through with it. At times, I felt stupid, the 32 year old backpacker. Isn’t backpacking for college kids? I certainly was actually stupid a few times, but it was also one of the most fun and most liberating experiences of my life. And as to backpacking being a college kid thing, most of the people I met on the road were my age or older.

I am not an extreme traveler. I have met people on my travels that do it month after month, year after year. I still am afraid sometimes, and still doubt that I have what it takes to get out there. Staying off the road, though, is not an option. Sometimes I get tired being on the road, but after being home for a few weeks, I start getting the hankering again. Its time to go to the bookstore, visit the travel section, and pick a lonely planet guide off the shelf.

Twelve Hours Is A Long Commute

I was standing at a urinal that, via the rubber urinal cake holder was informing me that I was in at Eppley Airfield, the world’s cleanest airport. The speaker above me cracked to life, “Attention passengers on American Airlines flight 4276 to Chicago, the inbound aircraft has not yet left Chicago. We expect that the plane should land at approximately 2 o’clock, and that it should take about 15 minutes to turn the flight around, so the flight should now be leaving at 2:15 P.M. There are thunderstorms to the west of O’Hare, and a number of flights in Chicago are delayed. For passengers who are connecting in Chicago, it is quite likely that your connecting flights are delayed, so you could still make your connecting flights.” An hour and ten minute delay, looks like it was going to be a long travel day.

Even before my mother died, I was already a seasoned business traveler. I have over the past 6 years worked for two “Big Five” consulting firms – Accenture and BearingPoint. The Big Five used to refer to the accounting and consulting firms Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the five largest professional service firms in the world. (Actually, when I first got in, it was the big six, as Price Waterhouse and Coopers Lybrand were separate firms at the time). Despite the fact that most of these accounting firms have split off their consulting units into separate companies, or sold them to competitors, or just fail to even exist anymore, the term is still widely used. But even if the companies don’t exist anymore or have morphed and changed names a number of times, the lifestyle that a Big Five Consultant has remained mainly unchanged. Unless you are really lucky and get a project in town, that lifestyle is one of constant travel.

Basically, my job is to temporarily go to companies and help them with specific projects in their call center and marketing departments. The projects can last from as short as a couple of weeks to as long as a year. The companies can be anywhere. Since 1997 (my first year at Accenture) I have spent at least a month in: Detroit, MI, USA; Montreal, QC, Canada; Denver, CO, USA; Columbus, OH, USA; San Antonio, TX, USA; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco, CA, USA; Atlanta, GA, USA; and Las Vegas, NV, USA, in addition to my home town of Toronto, Ontario and my current location of Omaha, Nebraska, at Eppley Airfield, waiting for my flight to Chicago.

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I was headed home on a Friday from Omaha to Toronto. The week started early on Monday morning, with a 6:46 A.M. flight out of Atlanta to Dallas, and then on to Omaha. After five days in the office and four nights at the Club House Inn and Suites, I headed back to Eppley Airfield to fly back (via Chicago) to Toronto. I was scheduled to land in Toronto at 5:55 P.M. All told, the flight from Omaha to Toronto, including the time spent in Chicago was scheduled to be 4 hours of gate to gate travel time. When you add the 20 minutes from the office in Omaha to the airport, plus showing up an hour before hand to clear security in Omaha, a half-hour to clear customs in Toronto and the 30 minute drive home from Toronto’s airport to my apartment, it would be six and a half hours door to door.

That’s pretty bad, but certainly not the worst I’ve had. Toronto to San Antonio was a one-stop, 6 hour ordeal, plus a couple of hours on either end for clearing security and customs. That was before September 11th. After September 11th, the time in airport has increased, making the usual hour I used to schedule for clearing security and customs has increased to 2 hours. Toronto to my apartment in San Ramon, California, outside of San Francisco used to take 8 hours door to door, and that was with a direct flight.

We finally got off the ground from Omaha at 2:30 Central time. Unfortunately when I landed in Chicago my flight to Toronto had already left, apparently not deterred by the weather that had delayed my Omaha-Chicago flight. The next flight to Toronto on America was scheduled to leave at 5:37 P.M., 2 hours and 10 minutes after my originally scheduled flight. I would now be arriving in Toronto at 8:00 P.M. At least I would miss most of rush hour. That would cut 10 to 15 minutes off my drive home. I went and sat at one of the airport restaurants, had some dinner and read my book. Being patient is one of the key attributes one needs when traveling every week.

So, too, is being flexible. My scheduled flight from Omaha to Toronto was the 3rd flight I had scheduled for this same day. Originally, I was flying from Atlanta to Toronto on that day as part of a massive routing from Toronto to Omaha, Omaha to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Atlanta and Atlanta to Toronto. Two days before the outbound flight, my plans changed and instead of going to Omaha and Las Vegas, I was needed in Atlanta. So I booked new flights from Toronto to Atlanta and returning to Toronto. Then, after I arrived in Atlanta, it was clear I was actually needed in Omaha. So, change number three happened – Atlanta to Omaha followed by a flight from Omaha to Toronto. Certainly I think my skills in designing and installing call center systems is good, but my true skills lay in finding flights and hotels in short order. A fellow co-worker at BearingPoint said that our true “core competency” is not consulting, but rather is traveling. No one can plan a business trip and execute it quicker and with more aplomb than a Big Fiver.

No planning, however, could have helped me in Chicago. The 5:37 departure got pushed back and back and back. We changed gates 3 times. Finally, the plane left just before 9:00 P.M. central time.

We landed in Toronto after 11:00 P.M. I cleared Canadian customs, got into a cab and was home just before midnight Eastern time. I left the office in Omaha just after 11:30 central time (12:30 eastern time), so that means my original 6 and a half hour commute had almost doubled to near twelve hours. I sat down on my couch and popped open a cold beer. In twelve hours I had finished a book, completed the U.S.A. Today crossword puzzle and collected 1000 air miles on my American Airlines AAdvantage program, taking my total to 24,908 miles. That’s only 92 miles away from gaining a free flight from my hometown to Toronto to somewhere in Canada or the U.S., like say, Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, the world’s cleanest airport. That’s not a bad deal for 12 hours of my life, is it?

Posted by GregW 16:08 Archived in USA Tagged preparation business_travel travel_philosophy Comments (0)

Costa Rica, January 30, 2004 through February 14, 2004


View Costa Rica March 2004 on GregW's travel map.

Costa Rica is a country of approximately 3.8 million people in the Southern part of Central America, bordered by Nicaragua in the North and Panama in the South. Costa Rica is about 51,000 square kilometers (about the size of West Virginia, according to the CIA fact book, if that helps) and has 1290 kilometers of coast line on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Lonely Planet (the bible for travelers) states “Costa Rica is Central America's jewel. It's an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbors and an ecotourism heaven, making it one of the best places to experience the tropics with minimal impact. It's also mostly coastline, which means great surfing, beaches galore and a climate built for laziness.”

Myself, John Lee (my roommate) and Dennis Kim (an old college friend) flew out of Toronto on January 31st, meeting up with Trish Anderson (who we met down in Cuba a few years ago) in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. For our first three days, we stayed at the Marriott Costa Rica, a Spanish style hotel on a coffee plantation about 20 kilometers outside of downtown San Jose. The Marriott was unfailingly American and expensive, however they had a bitchin’ pool and an excellent $US 15 shrimp cocktail. But at $US 5 a beer, we couldn’t sit around the pool and drink all day and night.

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So, on February 1st we headed into San Jose for a little local afternoon culture, and then a little American culture as we caught the Super Bowl in San Jose. An interesting note is that I have watched the past 4 Super Bowls in 4 different countries (Denver, U.S.A.; Toronto, Canada; Puerto Natales, Chile; San Jose, Costa Rica). While this might not seem like something impressive to you, it did make the Costa Rican national newspaper “La Nacion.” Next year, I am thinking of either Tokyo or Hong Kong for Super Bowl. Anybody in?

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After killing a couple more days in San Jose, we headed North into the mountains of Costa Rica in search of monkeys. He headed to Monteverde, a 3 hour bumpy and dusty bus ride from San Jose. While Costa Rica is a very small country, the roads are horrific, and while the buses are dirt cheap, they tend to stop every 30 seconds to pick someone up. So what seems on the map as a short, short trip ends up taking a long, long time. Later in the trip we wised up and started hiring cabs to drive us everywhere, but I am jumping ahead of myself.

Monteverde, at approximately 4500 feet above sea level is surrounded by “cloud forest,” which is basically rain forest that is high enough up that the clouds tend to roll right in on top of you. Just outside Monteverde are two national parks and a number of private operations protecting the cloud forest. Many of the private operations provide suspension bridge walks and/or zip lines through the canopy of the forest. We chose to do a half day walk on the suspension bridges and a half-day in the St. Elena national reserve. I was sure that spending a full day in the jungles of Central America would yield a monkey sighting. I could not have been more wrong. While the forest was very lush and green, it was also eerily silent. I believe that I saw a total of 4 birds and 2 bugs in my day of walking. And while green forest with clouds rolling over the hills is impressive, I was pretty bummed at not seeing any monkeys. The canopy tour place was nice enough to have set up some hummingbird feeders to attract the fast little fliers, but frankly I could sit at home and watch hummingbirds at a feeder.

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On the plus side, the beer was significantly less expensive than the $US 5 we paid at the Marriott, and I am told that the coffee was quite good, though not being a coffee drinker I can’t say first hand.

The other attraction the mountains offer is active volcanoes, specifically the Arenal Volcano. The Volcano is constantly spewing lava and steam, and can on a clear day be seen from the St. Elena reserve. Unfortunately, they don’t call it a cloud forest for nothing, and our view of the volcano was obscured by mist. However, I bought a nice photo of what the volcano would look like had I been able to see it, and have scanned it in for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

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After busting out on the Monkey hunt in Monteverde (and frankly getting a little sick of the constant cloud and cold of the mountains), we headed via bus, boat and bus to the coastal town of Montezuma. Montezuma is on the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast, a small town with miles of beach (somewhat rocky) and lots of potheads. We were about the only people in the whole place that didn’t have dreadlocks.

We settled into our hotel and promptly met a couple of guys from the Netherlands. They worked for Heineken, and upset us all by admitting that they had 40 and 50 days of vacation a year. While Europe may not be the super power that it was back in earlier centuries, dude, that much vacation?!? I’d gladly kowtow to all the U.S.A.’s requests for that kind of time off. Hell, Canada does that already – why not get some damn vacation for it?

The people you meet always make travel more interesting. In addition to the Netherlands boys we met some real characters in Montezuma. There was a kid from Portland who was planning on spending a month fishing the waters of Costa Rica and trying to survive on $20 a day. He was pretty happy that he had found a campsite that only charged him $1/day to pitch a tent, and even happier when he shared one of his catches with the operators of the site and they gave him five free days in return. There was Ira, a pretty seasoned traveler who also happened to be a storyboard artist for the Simpsons. If I worked on The Simpsons, I am not sure I would need to take vacation. And then there was “$50,000 a year Frank.”

I met Frank during an 8.5 kilometer hike through the Cabo Blanco national park. Prepared for a rough hike, I brought along a backpack with 3 liters of water, granola bars and nuts to eat for energy and a lot of sunscreen. Frank brought a 600ml bottle of Coke. The terrain was rough, up and down all day long in a hot and humid jungle. Frank was a 40-something asthmatic without his inhaler. All that being said though, Frank was a trooper and managed to walk the 8.5 kilometer round trip, though Ira and I did supplement his supplies with some water and half a sandwich.

Frank lived in New York City, and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the fairer sex. It seems that Frank hadn’t had much luck with the ladies, and he was chalking it up to his lack of income – “The first question they ask you is what do you do? Lawyer, they’ll talk to you. Doctor, they’ll talk to you. You make $50,000 a year, they won’t even look your way.” It never occurred to Frank, I suppose, that part of his problem may have been his 1982 out of date wardrobe, his $7.50 Supercuts hair cut, his unfortunate choice of “Construction Worker from the Village People” moustache or his general attitude. Ah well, if nothing else, he provided entertainment on the hike in.

Cabo Blanco, besides being the place where I met Frank, was also my first monkey sighting. I saw two different types of Monkeys – the Howlers and the Capuchin monkey.

A Howler Monkey is the loudest land animal in the world (The only animal that is louder than the Howler Monkey is the Blue Whale). The Howler's call can be heard up to three miles (4.8 km) away. Howlers grow to be about 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 m) tall and weigh from 8 to 22 pounds (3.5 to 10 kg), which isn’t all that big, but their cry sounds like something out of a horror film. I can’t even do justice in describing what it sounds like – you need to hear it for yourself. So, book a trip to Costa Rica.

I also saw the white-faced Capuchin monkey. I saw both of the monkeys up in the canopy of the forest, probably 40 or 50 feet away from me. I tried taking pictures, but to no avail – dark monkeys on a dark background do not show up very well on film.

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While Dennis and I (and $50,000 a year Frank) hiked Cabo Blanco, John and Trish did some snorkeling. The next morning, while the four of us were sitting around at breakfast and comparing stories of the previous day, Trish saw the captain of the snorkeling boat wander by. “Not going out today?” she asked. He confirmed that he wasn’t because there weren’t enough people who wanted to go. “Jeez,” said Trish, “any chance on us getting the boat for the day and doing on snorkeling and hanging on a deserted beach.” The captain agreed, and for $20 each, we got a day of sitting around on a quiet beach with a cooler full of beer and sandwiches. The snorkeling was great, no coral but a whole lot of colorful fish. And the beach was fantastic – we settled in beside a wrecked boat in the shade, and spent the afternoon drinking and relaxing.

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After another day in Montezuma, we headed off to Manuel Antonio further south down the Pacific coast. We ended the trip in Manuel Antonio, and it turned out to be an excellent choice for our final days in Costa Rica. Firstly, Manuel Antonio has excellent beaches – white sand above water and sandy bottom once you got into the water. The restaurants were excellent, the beer was cold and the bill was inexpensive. And, after being impressed with seeing monkeys from 40 feet away in Montezuma, I was absolutely blown away by the wild-life in Manuel Antonio.

Waking at 6 am the first morning at Cabinas Piscis (highly recommended hotel in Manuel Antonio), I walked outside to the sound branches raining down on the roof of our cabin. Looking up, I saw a group of 20 or 30 Capuchin (White Faced) monkeys. I spent the next hour watching the monkeys as they explored the trees surrounding our hotel. After thinking I was pretty lucky seeing the monkeys from far away in Montezuma, I was able to see them up close – as close as 5 to 6 feet above me in the palms. The capuchin's body is nimble and slender, the limbs thin. Length of head and body 12.8-22.4 inches (32-56 cm), tail about the same; weight 3.3-8.8 pounds (1.5-4 kg).

I saw a lot more of the Capuchin monkeys in Manuel Antonio. They are very curious, unafraid of humans and always looking for a hand-out. They would approach us at restaurants, run along the beach, steal food off picnic tables in the national park. They were everywhere in Manuel Antonio.

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Even more impressive was the visitors we got at 8 am that same day. After the white faced monkeys cleared out, a group of 30 or so squirrel monkeys appeared. Squirrel monkeys are smaller than the capuchins, around 26-36 cm long. They are also quite endangered. There are only 4,800 of them left in existence. The group of squirrel monkeys spent about half an hour visiting with us. I was able to get very close to one of the monkeys, probably about 4 feet from me as he climbed over a flowered archway looking for bugs and fruit to eat. Even more “aaah” inspiring was the mothers who were carrying their babies on their backs. The babies cling to their mother’s fur as they leap from branch to branch. The squirrel monkeys came and visited the next day as well, which was a double treat given their rarity.

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Trish saw a sloth. I wanted to see a sloth, but I didn’t get to see one. Enough said about that, because, frankly, I am still bitter about the thing.

Beer is very cheap – did I mention that? One night in San Jose we showed up for happy hour. The special was 3 beers for $US 2.40. That’s a deal.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the travelogue. I would highly recommend Costa Rica as a destination. The beaches are excellent, and not at all crowded like some of the more popular destinations in the Caribbean, plus the opportunities to see wild life and nature are spectacular. There isn’t much in the way of history, architecture or culture to see, but there are MONKEYS! (and, apparently, sloths, though I didn’t see them).

MONKEYS!

So, Costa Rica goes on my list of recommended places to go. I for sure want to go back – I would like to actually get to see the Arenal Volcano next time, as well as heading further down south to the Corcovado National Park before ending my trip (just like this time) amongst the trees and monkeys of Manuel Antonio.

So, to wrap this all up, the week before we went away to Costa Rica, I got a cold. "Great," thought I, "I am getting sick just before my vacation. I will probably go away on vacation and end up being sick." However, thanks to a regimen early bed-times and Nyquil, I was better by the time Saturday rolled around and ready for 2 weeks of sun and fun in the South.

After my two weeks in Costa Rica, we returned to Toronto. On Sunday, I woke up with a sore throat, which soon developed into a full-on head-cold with runny nose, achy muscles and sore throat.

Obviously my body is trying to tell me something - more vacation and less work. There’s only one thing to do – move to the Netherlands and find work at Heineken. 50 days a year, I could handle that for sure.

Posted by GregW 17:43 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica

What to do when you are there...


View Costa Rica March 2004 on GregW's travel map.

I spent two weeks in Costa Rica. Went to San Jose, Monteverde (in the mountains), Montezuma (Nicoya peninsula) and Manuel Antonio (Pacific coast).

If you fly into San Jose and are looking for a place to stay, The Hotel Aranjuez (Aranjuez Hotel) is very nice. We had a superior room for $38 (Double) and that includes a TV. Free breakfast with someone making you omletes in the morning. They take reservations, but are VERY strict on them - make sure you call to reconfirm when they say. A cab from the airport is $10 - $ 12.

By far, Manuel Antonio was the best destination. Lots of wildlife, both in the national park and just outside hanging around. I saw both capuchin and squirrel monkeys, and my friend saw a few sloths (including a mother and child). It's a little more expensive to eat and drink than some of the other locations, but still very worth it.

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I stayed at the Cabinas Piscis. Highly recommended hotel. $43 / night for a double room with private bath. Very basic, and cold showers, but it's only 100 meters to the beach, and the beach is near deserted. The beach and sea bottom are all sand. The surf is good - not too big that you can't swim, but big enough that you can pull out a surfboard or boogie board for some fun.

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From 4:30 - 6:30 go to the Marlin Restaurant for 2 for 1 drink specials. For dinner, head to the Costa Verde restaurant for excellent BBQ (it's pretty pricey though, so save up a few bucks). Eat breakfast on the beach at one of the sodas for a few bucks.

Based on what I heard from other travellers, there are a couple of places that I didn't get to that I would have loved to have seen.

The Arenal Volcano (which I saw from afar in Monte Verde) is supposedly quite impressive. If I go back to Costa Rica, I would for sure dedicate a day to the Volcano.

As well, Corcovado is supposed to be jam packed with wildlife. There are some nice tent camps in Corcovado park, where you sleep in a "tent" (which is really a wood floor with a canvas covering). These are supposedly REALLY nice, and go for $80 or $90 a night. A little pricey (compared to a hotel), but you get to sleep right on the beach.

If I were doing my "dream" two week itinerary, it would probably go something like this:

Fly into San Jose, stay at the Hotel Aranjuez for 1 night, leave the next day for La Fortuna.

Spend the night in La Fortuna, go to Arenal Volcano the next day (day 3), leave La Fortuna on day 4 for Manuel Antonio.

Spend 3 days in Manuel Antonio (day 5, 6, 7). One day for the national park, one day as a beach day and one day to do some fishing or some other activity. Leave day 8 for Corcovado.

I'd spent days 9, 10 and 11 in Corcovado hanging around. Probably do some of the zip-line / canopy tour thing, a day in the park looking for wildlife, and a beach day.

Day 12 travel Corcovado -> San Jose.

Day 13 is open for you to do whatever - white water rafting or seeing the sights in San Jose (which really only takes about two hours).

Day 14 leave.

Posted by GregW 16:44 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Superbowl 38 at Nashville South

San José, Costa Rica

-17 °C
View Costa Rica March 2004 on GregW's travel map.

The Nashville South seemed like a decent place to watch the game in San Jose, Costa Rica. The guidebook described it as a ex-pat hangout free of the usual plague of women looking to exchange sex for money. John Lee, Trish Anderson, Dennis Kim and I settled in at the end of the bar to enjoy the game, along with many libations.

The guide book was wrong about the lack of prostitutes, they were there, but pretty low key (compared to say, the Hotel Del Rey). Soon we were joined by other travellers looking for a place to drink and watch. Rock music pumped in the background during half-time, and I was so distracted trying to dance that I totally missed Janet Jackson's breast. So, unlike millions of American's, I have never seen Janet's breast not pixelized.

A newspaper reporter came in and snapped a few pictures. We were in the paper the next day, but my name was spelled incorrectly.

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The game? Oh, New England beat Carolina 32 to 29 to take their second trophy in 3 years.

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For other experiences viewing "The Big Game", check out the rest of my Superbowls Around the World blog entries

Posted by GregW 18:32 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged sports superbowls_around_the_world Comments (0)