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Chicago’s around-the-world couple land in Tuscany

Nate and Jess Baumgart visited the salt flats in Bolivia, which was the first stop on their yearlong jaunt around the world. | Photo courtesy of Nate and Jess Baumgart,

Sharks, vomit, two bicycles, a cliff and a freshly washed Volkswagen.

They are key elements in the continuing around-the-world trip that Nate and Jess Baumgart — a young married couple from Chicago — set out on six months ago after selling almost everything they owned.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote about them in December, just before the duo — with $75,000 they scraped together over two years of frugal living — left for Colombia on the first leg of a journey that has since taken them through South America and Africa before arriving in Italy a few days ago.

Their itinerary is fluid, Nate said during a recent long-distance conversation.

“A lot of the stuff we do we end up hearing about the day before from someone who told us, ‘Do it! It’s amazing!’ ” said Nate, 33.

For example, taking Bolivia’s Death Road, a 37-mile bike ride along a mountain cliff.

“The night before, Jess was like, ‘Should we be scared because it’s called The Death Road?’ ” Nate recalled. “And I was like, ‘No one really dies. It’s a gimmick! It’s just marketing!’ ”

Well, not exactly.

“It was stressful,” Jess said. “I fell off my bike toward the cliff and didn’t notice how close I was to the edge.”

Said Nate: “By that point I’d sped off, having the time of my life.”

“Best husband ever,” Jess joked.

Jess, 28, can also now say with authority that she was not meant to shark dive in a cage off of the African coast.

“After 15 minutes, I got violently ill from being on the boat and threw up for an hour and then was a popsicle in a cage,” she said.

Jess Baumgart in Peru, along the Inca Trail. |
Jess Baumgart in Peru, along the Inca Trail. |

They drove though Namibia in a Volkswagen, and they urge anyone who attempts this to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They did not.

“We murdered that car. . . . And then we had it cleaned,” Nate said. “We’re waiting on the bill.”

In South America, Nate tried surfing and discovered “I have no idea how to surf.”

“On the first wave of the day my board got washed right into my face. I thought I just had a bruise.” The blood gushing from his face told another story.

A goat leisurely snacked outside the front door of the medical clinic where he was stitched up. The bill came to $1.25.

“I have a pretty nasty scar,” Nate said.

“He looks like a pirate,” Jess said.

The couple quit their jobs before leaving the United States.

Jess worked in marketing at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Nate did voice-over work on TV and radio ads.

If explaining why they checked out of a comfortable life was occasionally challenging in the United States, try explaining it in an impoverished African country.

“Everyone is like, ‘So, you got fired?’ And I say, ‘No, we left our jobs.’ And the response is ‘But how will you get another job?’ ” Jess said.

They haven’t planned that far ahead, but they saved enough cash for a two-month-long soft landing when they return early next year.

The reality for the moment is simple. “We don’t really miss work,” Nate said. “The world is amazing.”

Jess and Nate Baumgart used about two dozen credit cards to earn the miles they needed to book some cheap first-class flights. |
Jess and Nate Baumgart used about two dozen credit cards to earn the miles they needed to book some cheap first-class flights. |

So far, “We’re exactly on budget,” Jess said. Gaming the travel industry has helped. Nate opened nearly two dozen credit cards, earning about 800,000 airline reward miles, to whittle down total airfare for the entire trip to about $3,500 apiece.

They share tips on their travel blog,

They’ve camped, stayed in hostels and crashed at the occasional four-star hotel — another perk of credit card points.

And the couple has found one thing that unites people: “People generally everywhere don’t like their governments and think they’re corrupt.”

Also: “I’m constantly amazed how educated everyone else is about our politics, especially considering how little we know about theirs,” Jess said.

Without fail, if the subject of politics is breached, everyone expresses concern about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“They ask ‘How could this possibly be happening?’ ” Nick said. “And we tell them, ‘We’re as shocked as you are.’ . . . But consistently people think he’s either crazy or scary.”

The couple joked about putting Canadian flag patches on their rucksacks to avoid the question.

Nate Baumgart on a beach in Peru. |
Nate Baumgart on a beach in Peru. |

The couple have settled in Tuscany for a few weeks to work at a cooking school.

The gig is not a stretch for Jess. In Chicago, she had a side business teaching tipsy bachelorette parties how to make pasta from scratch.

After Europe, the couple will head to India and Southeast Asia.

Nate said he’s having the time of his life, but he appreciates the United States more and more.

“How amazing is our internet and transportation and grocery stores and pharmacies and water? There’s no Amazon in the rest of the world. You can’t order something and have it in two or three days,” he said.

“The U.S. is a great place to live.”

Nate and Jess Baumgart before they began their journey. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Nate and Jess Baumgart before they began their journey. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times