Sunday, November 22, 2020
The map from the 431-page tome "Balboa of the Darien" by Kathleen Romoli.

They had been on the bus for hours, the lush jungle a never-ending loop out the windows. And then suddenly, based only on a vague map from a 1950s book and a hunch, they got out.

Grant Wynia (BBA06/MAc07) and his brother Nic Wynia (BA03) had arrived in the tiny village of Santa Fe, Panama.

“Are you sure this is the spot?” Grant asked.

“No,” was the answer he got.

After talking with local villagers, they arranged to take a car four hours deeper into the jungle and sleep in a cinderblock  room until it was time to take the rest of the journey on foot.

Just exactly what was this mild-mannered, cautious CPA doing in the middle of the jungle?

For one thing, he was retracing the steps of Spanish conquistadors deep into Latin America. For another, he was on a bonding trip with his documentary photographer brother. He was also getting out—way out—of his comfort zone.

Grant Wynia
Grant Wynia.

After an uneasy night, they hiked more than three hours in the equatorial rainforest to the top of Cerro Pechito Parado, close to where Central America becomes South America. It was so hot and humid that by the time they reached the peak, sweat was dripping off the brim of Grant’s IOWA hat.

Finally, they stood on the very ground where Vasco Núñez de Balboa had “discovered” the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

Five hundred years before, Balboa and his crew waited for hours in the sweltering wilderness for the tide to come in so they could plant a cross in the bay and claim the Pacific for Spain. But Nic and Grant got out of there. The pictures were a bust—it was cloudy, and they couldn’t see the bay. And they realized the informal guide they had hired drank all their water. Coming back down, they had to stop their 4x4 to move logs out of the road, a roadblock set up by (luckily absent) thieves.

Bird flying over boats

This story of Wynia brother hijinks is just the beginning. The two have been on numerous trips together—to Italy, Honduras, Peru, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.

It is in Grant’s nature to live by the rules. So of course, these trips have their own set of rules, which he likes to remind his brother of.

“You remember the rules, right Nic?”

“Of course, Grant,” Nic will answer.

“Rule number one is—Grant can’t die. And rule number two is… the same as rule number one.”

While much hasn’t gone terribly wrong, they have had their fair share of scares.

Man holding an umbrella in a Latin American city.
Panama mangroves

Like when Grant got severe food poisoning in Guatemala (and Peru). Or when Grant was knocked out of his kayak in the fast-moving water of upper tributaries of the Amazon River. Or countless times when there were close calls with “creative” drivers along the Pan American highway or navigating narrow winding roads in the Andes.

Occasionally on these roads, they would come to a checkpoint, passing armed guards.

“You see these guys with automatic weapons and wonder ‘Why are they here?’,” Grant said. “Then you start asking, ‘Why am I here?’ There’s always an element of fear and adrenaline.”

It comes in stark contrast to his career.

Three hundred fifty days of the year, he leads a team in the finance department of First

Men driving in Peru

Databank (FDB), a tech company in Indianapolis that handles drug data for health care systems, insurance companies, and pharmacies across the country. His days are filled with financial statements and reports, acquisition analysis and contracts.

He is smart, confident, and enjoys his role at his laid-back office. The remaining two weeks of the year, he is in a far-flung location in Latin America. In other words, a fish out of water.

It all adds up to more than just interesting water cooler talk. The pushing of his personal comfort zone has changed him.

“I’m more confident than before I ever went abroad,” Grant admits.

He grew up in the small town of Story City, Iowa (pop. 3,370), so his first international trip alone, a summer study abroad program

Rainy roads in Mexico

while in business school, was a huge learning experience. By the time he graduated with a Master of Accountancy, he had the education and the self-confidence he needed as a young professional.

Among other things, this confidence led him to start his career at a “big four” firm (Deloitte) and take on short term deployments to New York, Houston, and India. After five years, he expanded his career outside of the world of public accounting and made the leap to big data.

Grant and Nic provide another study in contrasts.

Nic Wynia has degrees in art and education and has been working on a documentary project since he graduated from the University of Iowa in 2003.

People wading in the ocean in Guatemala with razorwire on a metal structure in the foreground.
The Andes out an airplane window.

He has a bit of an Anthony Bourdain vibe. He has lived in Lima, Peru, where he was a Fulbright fellow, house sat in Tuscany, taught grade school in a rough part of Honduras, and sailed the length of the Amazon River. He’ll stay wherever, eat whatever, and doesn’t like a strict itinerary.

Grant Wynia likes his steaks well done. He’s “not a sauce guy.” He is good with a map and likes to know what the plan is. He can be gregarious and social; he just likes to know where the edges are. He is also modest (it took some convincing to publish this article), has an office job, and a mind for numbers.

“I knew I wanted to study business in college,” Grant said. “My dad was a CPA before he was a lawyer and I knew I could get a job with an accounting degree, so I went that route. Compared to high school, Iowa pushed me, and I quickly had to learn how to study.

Nic Wynia
Nic Wynia

Tippie essentially trained me how to analyze and learn from my mistakes and how to solve problems—a skill I definitely use on these trips. Nothing like trying to ride ‘chicken buses’ across Nicaragua to catch my flight home.”

Of course, the brothers have things in common as well. Both love telling a good story and have a bit of wanderlust, which they likely inherited from their father Tom Wynia (JD78) who has long regaled them with stories of taking time off to travel before law school.

All this said, it’s probably safe to say that at certain points on these next level, off-the-beaten-path trips with Nic, he’d probably rather be partaking in one of his favorite hobbies—biking or watching Hawkeye football—but still, he says he looks forward to these adventures all year.

“It’s completely different than my day-to-day,” Grant explained. “There are no meetings, no deadlines. I just pack clothes and a plane ticket home.”

“It helps that we end the trips on a good note, usually on a beach with a cold one,” Nic said. “There’s nobody I’d rather travel with.”

It will be there, watching a Caribbean sunset that Grant invariably asks, “Where are we going next?”

Grand in Panama

All photos copyright Nicholas Wynia. To see more of Nicholas Wynia’s photography visit or on Instagram @nicholas_wynia.

This article first appeared in the 2020 issue of Iowa Ledger