Friday, August 30, 2013

Culture Clash (guest written by Jarrod)

In a country filled with striking landscapes and dramatic changes in every direction you look, I was surprised to find the most stunning contrast I have seen here is that between the classes  in Colombia.  
As I am writing this, we have completed a loop around the country and are currently staying in a ritzy apartment in the Parque 93 district of Bogota.  

If the signs weren't in Spanish, you would assume it was Chicago or any big city in the states. Brand new cars fly by immaculate parks and high rise apartments on their way to chic restaurants and expensive stores.  Its hard to believe that two days prior we were walking through the dirt bus terminal in San Gil.

We were forced to fly to Bogota because the agricultural workers, called campesinos, organized a nationwide strike that closed many roads leaving us without possibility of ground travel to the south.  The campesinos have legitimate demands for their government, and despite their interference with our plans, I hope they are successful.  We have had the pleasure of meeting several of these farm workers throughout our travels and they are all hard-working, genuine people.  While in Solento, we learned from the caretakers of the finca we were staying at that the minimum wage in Colombia is about 600,000 pesos a month. This may sound like a lot, but it's actually about $320 US.  Considering that gas costs about 9,000 pesos per liter, it's easy to see why few rural families have cars and rely solely on public transportation.  

Nowhere is the disparity between classes more evident than the transportation they use.  In the small mountain town of Cordoba, it was common to cram ten or more people into the back of a jeep.  We rode in one with thirteen people! Even our 60 year old host was standing next to me on the bumper as we jostled down the rocky dirt road that served as the main thoroughfare between the fincas and the town.  The following day we were met in Armenia by our next host who had owned a very successful clothing store in the city. It was shocking to step into her brand new SUV after our prior transportation.   However, our travel from place to place was primarily accomplished by bus.  There were some nice busses, but most were old and very crowded.  Our fellow bus riders were primarily campesinos and working class people on their daily commute. On the airplanes however, the clientele could have been from a different planet! They were all well dressed, affluent families that probably rarely ever set foot on a bus. 

The disparity between classes is not just between rural and urban lifestyles.  Here in Bogota, we have witnessed the striking change in cultures just by visiting different barrios in the city.  We spent the morning jogging through a park where the high class citizens of the north side walked their dogs and participating in organized recreational classes.  A short bus ride later and we were in "La Candelaria" where the buildings were covered in graffiti, trash was strewn about the streets, and panhandlers would harass you on most corners.  It was hard to believe that this could exist in such a modern city.

The one common characteristic that all the different people in Colombia possess, regardless of social class, is their overwhelming friendliness and the desire to go out of their way to help out others. They truly are wonderful people and I hope to have learned a great deal from my experiences here.

The massive indoor market where the working class of San Gil purchased their produce was a very different scene from the brand new shopping mall just a few blocks away.

Street in La Candelaria 

The more modern, affluent side of Bogota.

Below is a typical campesino meal.  This was from a delicious restaurant in Rio Verde Bajo within the coffee region.  This meal cost about 3 US dollars and also included soup, lemonade, coffee and a fried plantain!

Hard to believe the deserts below came from the same country!


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Change of Plans

There's nothing like a bit of fresh mountain air, healthy food and manual labor to cure the body. After suffering from a violent stomach bug literally up until the point of our departure from the coast, I somehow survived the 16 hour bus ride from Santa Marta to San Gil. The bus was packed so full that 10 or so passengers had to lie or sit in the isle. This, of course, blocked my path to the bathroom, which made me quite nervous. As I reclined back in my seat I had a heart to heart with my bowels, which apparently worked because I never again felt the urge to run to the bathroom. 
Upon arriving to San Gil we were greeted by a Justin, a British expat, his Colombian wife Andrea, and their two bilingual children Inty and Sammy. 

They live on a beautiful piece of land outside of town that they are in the midst of developing into a hostel/retreat center. Jarrod and I helped Justin with digging and building a path out of logs in exchange for a place to stay and healthy, home cooked vegetarian food. 

My job was to build a path out of log slices (sawed off from a fallen tree) and mud from the earth that had been dug up. The different pieces of wood created a beautiful design. 

Jarrod learned to cut grass the Colombian way: with a machete!

Here I am proudly posing after completing the path. 

In exchange for our hard work, we were spoiled with delicious food and good company. Justin and Andrea get most of their ingredients from neighbors, such as eggs, butter, cheese and honey. They also make everything from scratch (including yogurt). Between working outside and resting in hammocks, we ate creative vegetarian dishes such as soy ginger cabbage, hand made veggie burgers, curried rice, butternut squash, and fruit salads. We qenched our thirst with hibiscus tea and fresh fruit juices.  We went to bed early and woke up with the sun. By the end of our three days with them I felt healthy and strong. 

We fit in a day trip to the beautiful colonial town of Barichara. From there we followed an old indigenous route that connects the little town of Guane.

The second part of our time in San Gil was spent doing more touristy things. We bid farewell to the family and checked into Macondo hostel. We hadn't been there even two hours before we found ourselves flying over tobacco and coffee farms. 

I have always had a fascination with flying. I finally fulfilled this dream:

San Gil is known as the adventure capital of Colombia and offers plenty of activities for the adrenalin seeker. Everyday people are out paragliding, mountain biking, caving, rafting and jumping in waterfalls. 

We ended up staying in San Gil for much longer than originally planned because a national strike blocked all the roads to my beloved Villa de Leyva. Agricultural workers created road blocks by burning cars, camping out on highways, vandalizing toll booths and bus stations and throwing rocks at anyone who tried to pass. 

With the roads blocked, we were forced to pull out our wallets and pay the inflated bus and taxi prices to the Bucaramanga airport and fly to Bogota. 

I'm disheartened to cross Villa de Leyva off our list of places to visit in Colombia. It has become such a special place to me and I was really hoping to share that with Jarrod. 

We have been making the most of our time in Bogota and for non-city people, we have been having a great time. Aunt Dignorey (who we stayed with in the coffee region) put us in contact with her nephew Efren, and he has taken us in like family. Our first night here his talented friends put on an impromptu concert for us in his living room as we enjoyed wine and hour devours. It felt like a night we would share with our friends in the states. We also met up with my friend Roland who happened to be in Bogota when the strike started. Last night we cooked a nice dinner (American style) with garlic mashed potatoes and pork with mango chutney. It's nice to get off the gringo trail again and share special moments with friends we've made here. 

Jarrod and I both agree that Colombia is a place we will come back to someday. In a way I feel that we're leaving with unfinished business. I'm leaving behind some of my belongings and plans I made with friends, with whom i never had a proper goodbye. Most importantly, I'm leaving behind the chance to introduce Jarrod to the temporary life I had in a beautiful place with beautiful people. Perhaps this will cause us to come back to Colombia sooner than later! 

Monday, August 19, 2013

I Nearly Pooped My Panties

We had a radical change of scenery after flying from Pereira (coffee region) to Cartagena (Caribbean coast). I bought our plane tickets about a month ago through Viva Colombia. It's actually the same price to fly as it is to take a long, bumpy bus, so I recommend it for travelers who want to visit several regions in the country. If you do choose to fly with Viva Colombia, get ready to run! They don't assign seats so there is a mad rush to get to the plane if you want to sit next to the people you are traveling with. 

I think our chain of unlucky events began when we went through security and the guard found my Leatherman in Jarrod's backpack. (His beer and my bottle of water made it through no problem though). We were sad to part ways with our only knife/bottle opener/scissors, but eventually we got over it and went to the cramped room where passengers wait until the plane is ready. 

When the announcement is made to begin boarding, everyone jumps up at the same time and rushes out to the plane like school children racing to get the best swing. There is no line, no order; just survival of the fittest to get there first. 

The hour plane ride was very lively; everyone was so excited to go to Cartagena! We were also excited...until we arrived to our hostel. 
We booked ahead at Mama Waldy Hostel because it was recommended to us by our host the previous night. Since we've had such good luck with recommendations thus far, we were surprised to arrive at a place that was more like a messy college house rather than a paid accommodation. I've never stayed in such a filthy place before. The next morning we found a cleaner, air conditioned hostel that was classy with a rooftop patio and breakfast included. Ironically we paid the same price as our previous frat house. 

Happy with our new sleeping quarters, we hit the town to explore. Cartagena is a colonial city founded in 1533. The old town is enclosed in a big rock wall, which reminded us of Lucca, Italy. There is some cool architecture to be found, but I had a hard time finding anywhere to stop and appreciate it. The streets are jam -packed with cars and motorcycles flying by and the narrow sidewalks are just as cramped with pedestrians and vendors. It's an obstacle course everywhere you go. Additionally, we were fighting the coastal heat. The humidity makes it so
muggy that your face will sweat just sitting. 

We finally had enough and found a little beach that we could walk to. It's not much of a beach but the water looked refreshing. As soon as we sat down we were accosted by a group of black women who insisted on massaging us even though we firmly said no about 20 times. I think our mistake was that the first time we said no we politely smiled at them. That was their cue to swarm in. Before I knew it I was in a chair with a pregnant woman massaging my legs with soap and water. Jarrod had three working on him and they had already managed to unbutton his shirt. It was only when they realized that we did not bring money with us that the harassment ceased and we could jump in the water to cool ourselves from the heat. 

On the way back to the hostel we saw a group of men pulling a long rope from the water. They were pulling in fish in a big net! We jumped in to help, which seemed to amuse them just as muh as it did us. After about 20 minutes more of hard tugging, we eventually pulled in the net and a boatload of fish of all different shapes and sizes. What fun!

We read that the only way to see the nice beaches in the area is to take a boat. We signed up to take a big, air conditioned boat with 3 floors to an island and another beach that doesn't have road access. Our "luxury" boat was actually the ride from hell. Per Colombian style, we were packed in like sardines and the boat sounded like it would break at a moments notice. The air conditioning actually did break (because the electricity went down) and the boat went so unbelievably slow that there was never a big enough breeze to cool anyone off. Kids were crying and passengers had unamused faces. It ended up taking 3 hours each way to get to the islands. The islands were ok but definitely not worth the long trip to get there. 

The rest of our time on the coast was a blur for me, because after our day on the boat, I became violently ill and could not eat anything without running to the bathroom. Painful stomach cramps and dehydration exhausted me to near immobilization. The heat seemed to make matters worse and we decided that we needed to get to the mountains where the air is cooler. 

Our bad luck continued when it came time to take buses. First, our 3 hour bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta became 5 when our bus driver illegally took the indirect route to try and pick up more passengers. Second, our 12 hour overnight bus ride from Santa Marta to San Gil actually took 16. It was so packed full that we had to argue our way into getting seats and several people slept in the isle. Third, in order to catch our crowded overnight bus we first had to take a mini bus to another "bus station" in a sketchy town. The other "bus station" was actually just a ticket window and a couple of seats on the side of a busy road that we didn't feel safe exploring. We had to wait here for 3 hours. 

As we sat contemplating our bad luck and how much we detested the coast, my bowels suddenly screamed at me that I needed a bathroom, NOW! I desperately scanned my surroundings and spotted a door with a padlock next to the bus ticket window. That had to be it. The man behind the ticket window was fast asleep so I pounded on the window to wake him and asked for the key. He slowly started moving and I told him with more certainty to please hurry; "it's urgent!" Of course that didn't motivate him to move any faster. My stomach was churning. Oh god, here it comes! Jarrod watched me in horror. I sat back down and droplets of sweat began to form on my forehead. I can't believe this is really happening: I'm going to poop my panties! Jarrod went to check on what was taking the man so long. Finally, he sauntered out with the key. When he unlocked the door I nearly pushed him out of the way to get by and drop my drawers. Hallelujah! I made it! 
It was the most disgusting bathroom I have ever used: dark (which was probably a good thing), stinky, no running water...but at least it wasn't my panties.

Before getting on the crowded overnight bus I vomited on the side of the road. "Hopefully that was the last of this demon." I wasn't sure, but what choice did I have?
To the mountains we go!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Tale of Two Fincas - Part II

As I have mentioned before, making connections with people while traveling is  a sure fire way to enrich your experience. 
Before leaving the coffee oasis of
Cordoba, Dignorey made sure that we had a contact in our next destination, Salento. Salento is a cute town in the coffee region with plenty of restaurants, shops and hostels. It is very tourist friendly; (For the fist time since Bogota we saw other fair-skinned travelers with the usual oversized packs strapped to their backs). The prices were also quite high, although we did find a delicious restaurant, Rincón de Lucy, that serves up a hearty menú del día for 6000 pesos ($3). 

Our host, Lilli was so eager to show us the view from her finca before sundown that she picked us up in her new car a couple towns away so we didn't have to deal with taking the bus. This was already feeling a world away from Cordoba, where most people get around by hailing down an old jeep. The drivers there will stop for anyone, no matter how limited space is. (We once counted and there were 13 in one jeep!) As we zipped along the perfectly paved roads in Lilli's plush car, we were a little apprehensive to pay a higher rate ($40 per night) for our room at the finca. Our apprehension quickly disappeared when we arrived and saw her one acre piece of paradise: The finca is situated on a peninsula in the sky: The flat, grassy yard juts out in an oblong semi-circle about 300 feet above the river and valley floor. There are spectacular views on three sides and we had our choice of hammocks, benches or even a lounger to take it all in. It is absolutely breathtaking.

It gets better...

Our room had floor to ceiling windows looking out to this wonderful view: this alone is worth much more than what she was asking. 

We were treated very well for the three days we spent here. The caretakers (a young couple with a 5 month old baby) made us a hearty breakfast every day: scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, warm arepas, coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, hot chocolate and croissants. We were the only guests during our time here so the place felt like it was our own private island (or peninsula) in the sky. 

We really lucked out finding another gem (Lilli). Although she doesn't live at the finca, she was very attentive and sweet. She called to check up on us and gave us tips for things to see before we leave. She also came by one afternoon to take us on a nature hike and pick fruit from the trees. 

Jarrod was able to put our bike tool to use to help them adjust the brakes:

During our stay here we went for an adventurous mountain bike ride, hiked to a hummingbird haven in the clouds of Valle de Cocora and on our last night we introduced the caretakers to an all-American treat: S'mores by the campfire!

What made our ride "adventurous"? Well, besides getting caught in a downpour which transformed our dirt road into a temporary river, we also went the wrong direction (twice), acquired a canine riding companion (we called him Tinto), crossed the river (three times) and almost hopped a locked gate to cross private property and make a loop (Jarrod nixed this idea). 

Oh, and we also stumbled upon a giant cupcake!

Valle de Cocora:

As you can see, fincas come in very different shapes and sizes. We felt like we found the very best in the the region: we were so satisfied with our time at Dignorey's place in Cordoba and Lilli's in Salento. Each was wonderful in its own way. Of all the places I've visited, the coffee region in Colombia is one that I definitely see myself returning to someday.