Last Week and La Candelaria

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Dear friends,
I have had issues with wi-fi on my laptop for a while, so I am behind in updates. This will be a brief update.

We are back in Bogotá for just one night after visits to Cartagena, Barranquilla and Cali. Kidlet and have flown four airlines so far here in Colombia! Flying domestically is quite pleasant, easy and stress-free.

Cartagena’s historic core is fantastic and so romantic. It is hot there but evenings are perfect with the night breeze. I would love to return again for a get-away with Hubster or some girlfriends. Unfortunately, when I left the core – which we did to go to the local’s bus station – I saw that much of the surrounding area is, as a Colombian resident described, “fifth world.” Not all of what I saw outside the core is that way, but the contrast is stark. But I did love Cartagena, as did Kidlet. I even managed to locate the most famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez literary locations, and kidlet visited her first castle.

Next we went to Barranquilla – out of cost concerns, actually. We couldn’t afford to stay in Cartagena any longer and Kidlet wanted a beach.

Unfortunately, Barranquilla didn’t deliver on beaches and we couldn’t make it to Santa Marta or Tayrona due to Kidlet’s bus ride intolerance and flight schedule limitations. We stayed at a family hostel in Barranquilla and visited the zoo but mostly we just tried to stay cool. The humidity on Barranquilla was so overbearing for me I dreaded leaving the hostel during the day.

We spent two nights there with an Italian-Colombian household full of travelers and then took the 6am flight to Cali, where my friend’s mother invited us to stay near her finca/holistic day spa.

Cali is the second largest city in Colombia, and like Cartagena, has a large visible Afro-Colombian population. I felt pretty comfortable there, even though of the six days we spent there, only two were really spent in the city. We visited the Cali Zoo which was quite good (far superior to Barranquilla’s), the archaelogical museum, and the museum of gold of Calima, as well as a few other sites.

Our guide, Noemi, works for my friend’s mom, and she took us around on a hilarious-in-retrospect transportation adventure! And also, we danced with hundreds of other people in a popular Thursday night plaza dance party.

We ate healthy food in Cali and enjoyed the rural life, which included walking dirt roads in the dark, many many many ranging dogs (and chickens), countless bug bites, swimming in the river and a rustic cabin in the woods. (Okay, I did not much enjoy the dogs or the bugs.)

Now we are in La Candelaria neighborhood, which is beautiful and close to the bus station (I think). We found a lovely hotel that I wish we were staying at for another night, but alas. Reservations await us at another farm in Villa de Leyva. I enjoy farms but I like having easy access to the town. We’ll see if our place in Villa de Leyva offers that.

Nine days to go in Colombia! And for now, good night.

Besos,
HSofía

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Six Things I Miss – Traveling in Colombia

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Dear Friends,

One month into our eight-week trip of traveling in Colombia and Kidlet’s homesickness has kicked in. We’ll be riding along in a mototaxi or sitting together and suddenly she’ll whimper, “I miss my Dad! I’m homesick!”

Helping Kidlet deal with her homesickness got me thinking about the things that I miss. This is the longest I’ve traveled abroad, but, like a turtle, I carry my world around with me, so homesickness hasn’t troubled me much in the past. (Culture shock has been more my bag.) But after a month here, there are definitely some things I wish I had easy access to – things that would make Colombia feel more like “home.”  Like Kidlet, I miss Hubster, but he’s not a thing, so I won’t put him on this list! (Will save that for another writing.)

Here’s a rundown of six things I miss while traveling in Colombia.

1. Exercise

Kidlet pace.

Kidlet pace.

This is huge. I had grand plans when I first arrived, and began each day with a short, do-able regimen of 100 squats, 20-40 pushups, crunches, yoga stretches, leg lifts, etc. Then the altitude sickness in Bogotá got the best of me after six days and I simply couldn’t bring myself to do them anymore. Then we hit the road and were staying in hostels where there was no place I could perform these exercises with any degree of privacy. I fell out of the habit.  And I get sweaty doing these exercises so I like to do them first thing in the morning, before my shower. Difficult.

My back-up plan had been to go on hikes with Kidlet on my back, but her carrier was in the suitcase that was lost in Bogotá, so even though we walk several miles a day, it’s at Kidlet pace. The only time my heart race is elevated nowadays is when I’m on horseback and afraid I’m going to fall off and be kicked in the head!  There’s still time for me to figure out how to work in my morning regimen again, though it may not be daily and it may not be in the morning. Re-evaluating the situation is a must or I will suffer a LOT when I get back to the boathouse!

 

2. Non-Meat Proteins
Seattle is one of the top cities in the US to be a vegan, so I’ve been spoiled by the variety  and availability to non-meat proteins  at restaurants, cafes, food carts, and of course grocery stores.  I miss chick pea salads, quinoa, lentils, veg*n Thai food, tofu, Field Roast, baked beans and other staples of my Seattle diet.  In Colombia, we eat meat.

 

3. Non-Dairy Milk Options

Kidlet reduced to eating an artificially flavored and colored popsicle to cool down.

Kidlet trying to make her tongue stick to the popsicle (never mind it is 80 degrees).

Colombia’s milk consumption boggles my mind. I don’t even have the context to identify the varieties of milk I see on the shelves here.  Powdered, concentrated, sweetened, in bags, lactose free, and many more, judging from the packages and labeling. Some milk products are refrigerated, most are not.  If you love milk and milk loves you, come to Colombia! If milk doesn’t love you, be prepared to resist it. Yogurts and smoothies abound. Tortas soaked in milk, puddings, and caramels are the most popular desserts I’ve seen here, along with homemade ice cream popsicles (sold everywhere!) and scooped ice cream.

Kidlet, who loves ice cream, is tortured by the sight of grown men and children eating ice cream popsicles at just about any time of day. Frozen fruit juice popsicles are available, but these are all artificially flavored with artificial dyes, which she reacts to. It’s pretty sad for Kidlet. I allow her an artificially flavored (and sometimes dyed) popsicle every few days and she eats a slice of cake to satisfy her sweet tooth. Her skin is not great, but her eczema is controlled.

Breakfast and lunch are often served with blocks of queso – cheese – even if you specifically say “no queso.” or “sin queso.”   Dairy can upset my stomach and I’ve avoided all but cream (cooked into things), butter (same), and some queso out of solidarity with Kidlet.

Again, we’ve been spoiled in Seattle with its offerings of vegan ice creams, cakes and cookies alongside regular desserts in most shops. Servers in the restaurants we frequent are familiar with the concept of dairy free and can prepare meals or guide us to meals without dairy. I wish we could eat cereal or the delicious granola they have here, but except in Bogotá where I bought soy milk in an upscale grocery store, I haven’t seen non-dairy milk available.  It’s possible to avoid milk, but if you are severely allergic to cross-contamination, I advice caution here.

 

4. Big Salads

If only instagram made salads LARGER.

If only instagram made salads LARGER.

Colombia is known for the variety of its fruits. But vegetables, so far as I’ve seen, are mostly treated as an afterthought. Potatoes are ubiquitous – if you’re a meat and potatoes kind of person, come to Colombia!  However, if you thrive on leafy greens, prepare yourself for disappointment. I have only seen broccoli once; kale, collards and chard do not appear to exist here at all.

In a large, upscale grocery store in Bogotá, the vegetable aisle was a single aisle, and the vegetables stocked there looked like basic vegetables you could find just about anywhere in the USA: carrots, onions, potatoes, celery, a few beets, a bit of cabbage, lettuce, maybe a red pepper, some really sad button mushrooms and garlic. Compared to half a dozen fruit aisles!

I miss salad bars, stir fries, vegetarian protein salads, and being able to order salad as a meal. I gobble up whatever napkin-sized salad I’m served here (often with pineapple or strawberries as a main component, along with the iceberg lettuce I wouldn’t bother with in Seattle), and am always left wanting more. The thirst for fresh, raw veggies is real in these Colombia streets! I’ve met other North Americans who’ve expressed the same sentiment.


5. Spices
My friend in Bogotá, X-, warned me in my first days here: “Colombian food is kind of bland.” No problem, I thought. I’m not a picky eater, I enjoy food but I’m not a foodie. And I’m the kind of person who can eat the same meal for lunch or dinner every day for a week and not get tired of it. But, man. X- was not joking! Salt and pepper seem to be the main seasonings here, along with chicken and beef broth packets loaded with sodium (probably MSG). Tip: Be sure not to salt anything you’re served until you’ve tasted it first!

I ordered a “Mexican style” burrito in the hopes of getting some fresh flavors, and it had a curry sauce – the mildest, least spicy yellow curry you can possibly imagine. The burrito wasn’t served with green onions, or salsa of any kind. Like so much Colombian food I’ve eaten, it was completely inoffensive, it just lacked flavor. The most flavorful food I’ve had so far has been at X’s house, where she cook using a variety of fresh herbs and spices (which she may have purchased in the US and brought back with her!). Also, I’ve had a few, good, imported chorizos that had some kick. I’ve been told that there are exciting restaurants in trendy neighborhoods of Medellín and Bogotá, but these places are not inexpensive to our budget. I may have to splurge on one of these later.

They're not getting wet in this downpour, but they're not exactly getting dry, either.

They’re not getting wet in this downpour, but they’re not exactly getting dry, either.


6. Clothes Dryer
Hanging clothes out to dry is charming and energy efficient, and would probably not be a problem if I had all my clothes. But I don’t. Kidlet and I are living out of a suitcase, and when it takes 3 days for our clean underwear to dry (because some days are cloudy or it rains), I get antsy. I spend far too much time keeping track of our clean clothing situation! I have even planned my travel around how long it will take me to get my laundry washed and for it to dry. I definitely miss my janky old clothes dryer.

 

Hope you enjoyed my list, hope to write again soon.

Besos,

HSofía

Traveling in Colombia – A Video

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Holá,

This is my first video from Colombia. I’d like to try to make more, specifically in Spanish. The idea to do this came from Benny Lewis, AKA The Irish Polyglot over at his website, Fluent in 3 Months. Maybe it was one of his posts or videos that recommends this, but I cannot find it exactly at the moment.

In any case, while I’m not super keen on being in front of the camera, I made this short little video on the word “Ciao” and how it’s used in Colombia in lieu of “Adios.” Kidlet video bombs most of it, by the way.

AND, if anyone has suggestions for future topics, let me know here in the comments Also, if you have a question you’d like me to answer, let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to make a video answering your question (in Spanish!).

Ciao!

HSofía

 

A Small Town in Colombia

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A child in waders from one of the neighboring fincas is at the gate this morning. I walk down the driveway eating a mandarina, and meet him there. Qué necesitas, niño? He is looking for a lost duck. I let him in. Muchas gracias, says he. I tell him it’s nothing, then turn back - Cuando salgo, cierra la puerta. The boy, already circling the little lake on the property, nods. I resume my walk back to the house, tossing the last of the orange pith into some bushes.  This place is not like Seattle.

Looking for a Duck

Looking for a duck.

 

Dear Friends,

We are nearing the end of our first month of travel in Colombia. We are still in a small town in Colombia, in the department of Antioquia, and I love it. Despite the bug bites. It’s not the mosquitos, which have never seemed keen on me, but the little red flies; I believe they’re called biting midges. They left me (mostly) alone for the first six days but several days ago they suddenly took a strong interest. It’s not fun.

But subtract the bug bites and this place is a kind of paradise. I’ve lived all my life in cities and suburbs, so small town life is new to me, and it appeals to me more than I thought it would. In the United States, I wouldn’t want to raise my child in a small town; namely because I wouldn’t want her to be one of the few children of color. Also, cities are full of cosmopolitan adventures, historical buildings, art, diverse culture, culinary experiences. But traveling in them abroad with a child is slow, stressful and difficult. This town is great because it’s leisurely and pretty safe – children play in the street here, and run errands alone; and the pace of the traffic is slower and more cautious. There are no signs here cautioning car drivers to “share the road” – it’s a given. The roads here, including the dirt roads that you find just outside of the town center, are used equally by cars, motocarros (tiny taxis smaller than golf carts), horses, motorcyclists, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Aerial Cable

Aerial Cable

We walk to town every day. Yesterday Kidlet and I went yesterday afternoon. I had the vague notion of finding the library, which I’d passed by a few days ago when it was closed. We walked pretty far south into the town and encountered some amazing views, ate lunch, window shopped, found the aerial cable station, played in the main square and bought Kidlet some leggings, but no sign of the library. I’ll keep looking!

It’s really easy to be shy and not speak much to people; especially when running errands. It’s easy to feel as though you’ve met your interaction quota simply by going to the grocery store and buying a few things, and saying hello to people you pass on the road, and then ordering a meal. But that’s not really conversational Spanish. Conversational Spanish is when you find yourself alone in the hostel at night with an enormous unidentified bug and a neighbor boy comes by to see if there are children to play with, and you greet him like Jesus. Then you show him the bug and he looks alarmed and retreats to another room with your child to watch YouTube videos. Then a possibly-homeless man arrives to enjoy the music playing on the stereo and see what’s going on, so you show him the bug and he dismisses it as just a cricket, and sits down and tells you all about his dreams of visiting the United States, particularly Las Vegas.

It’s nice, to stay put for a little while. To get out of travel mode and experience a bit of living mode. Yesterday I talked to two women in a toy store, a couple in a children’s clothing store, and some boys in the plaza. In Medellín and Bogotá especially, it was hard to find situations where it seemed people had time to chat, but in a small town it’s easy. People are just hanging around chatting with each other. Even the ones doing business – they are mostly talking to each other and then sell a few things.

Last night, Kidlet and I came home to a houseful of people – including the neighbor boy and the possibly-homeless man again – and interacted with all of them. At the end of days like that, my brain is tired. Practicing my Spanish is a lot of work, but I’m finding it most enjoyable in a small town.

Besos,

HSofía

 

Kidlet approaches a viewpoint.

Kidlet approaches a viewpoint.

 

Traveling in Colombia – With the Aid of Others, Part 2

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(This post is continued from: Traveling in Colombia – With the Aid of Others, Part 1)

The lobo-looking guy lugged our bags across the street again and tried to flag down a bus, a van, a car.  It wasn’t looking good. Backseats of  sedans were packed with four, five, even six people.

As lobo guy’s impatience visibly grew, it dawned on me that maybe I was supposed to tip him. I didn’t know what was customary, but in Bogotá I’d given a 2,000 COP bill ($1) on a 13,000 service to a very patient waiter, and he’d gasped and shown it off to his coworkers. I rummaged in my purse and came up with 1,500 worth of coins, which I jammed in my back pocket just in case.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, lobo guy abruptly turned to me and said something in a sharp tone. I picked out the word propina, aka “tip.”  ”Quisiera una propina, sí?” I replied. He gave me a look like, “Obviously.” I handed him the change I’d set aside and he slipped it in his jacket without a word or glance.

Eventually he found us a ride: a Chiva bus.  Except that the Chiva bus wasn’t outfitted as a bus, but was still a cargo truck filled with green packing crates. Only the front compartment had room, and it was covered with a black tarp blocking all light except what entered through the glassless window above a side “door.”

Riding with a motorcycle.

Loading up a motorcycle.

There was a very fit and alert-looking man with a handsome face strongly reminiscent of an eagle. He seemed to be coordinating everything. He was the driver’s assistant, responsible for arranging pick-ups, loading cargo and collecting the fares.  While I was still pondering the wisdom of this mode of transit, he lifted Kidlet up into the beast. I had no choice but to climb in as well.

The lobo fellow was speaking a mile-a-minute to the fit Chiva man; I heard him say, seven or eight times, the name of the town we were headed to. The fit Chiva man nodded, nodded and finally repeated it back to him. At last the lobo fellow looked satisfied and let go of the truck as it accelerated. The baton had been passed.

The compartment of the Chiva truck was already occupied by a woman and her two children – a boy and a girl, ages eight and six. There were many sacks of potatoes, boxes of lettuce and other produce. Kidlet and I sat on a tall stack of potatoes against the back wall. Kidlet buzzed with excitement. Someone handed me a little black bag “para la niña.” Many drivers keep these bags on hand. There may be some small expense in buying them, but it can’t be worse than having to clean vomit out of your vehicle!

I thought, “We’re almost there, this should be a short ride.” I felt happy. Here we were having a bit of adventure! I had fond memories of riding in the back of a pick-up and taking “chicken buses” in Guatemala; now Kidlet would experience something similar.

Her mind was working overtime. “I’m riding in a potato truck,” she told me. “I’m sitting on potatoes, and they are not comfortable. It’s okay to sit on these potatoes, though.” She seemed unsure about the last part. “My shoes are on these potatoes. My butt is on these potatoes. It’s okay, though. We’re in Colombia.” She even waved off the black bag when I let her know it was available. “Mama, I can’t get carsick in a potato truck,” she said.

Her optimism was admirable, but after half an hour of turn after turn along bumpy, narrow roads, lurching and keeling in a hot truck, with the mild smell of potatoes fast becoming the permeating stench of potatoes, we were green as the sack of guavas at our feet.

The vomit took us all by surprise. Kidlet didn’t even make a noise. I just rubbed her back consolingly, wiped her face, my arm, and my pants; then scrubbed at the mesh bag of potatoes we sat on. I hope those are washed before they get sliced up. Fortunately, potatoes are typically subjected to high heat prior to consumption. Eek.

The ride went on and on. It seemed impossible. Where was this town?! The little boy’s eyes were closed as he stretched out across potatoes, limp as a towel. His sister lay like a board across her mother’s lap, her head resting as close to the window for fresh air as possible.

I marveled at the fit Chiva man’s iron guts as he sat with one leg slung over the little door to the compartment. As we careened down rough roads, he held himself upright with the outside arm, gazing straight ahead. His body was composed but his eyes were animated. He was looking for passengers among the people we passed on the highway.

We stopped a few times to pick up new riders, but all of them sat in front with the driver; our view of him and his cab was completely blocked by the tarp. At one point we all had to deboard while the fit Chiva man rearranged the produce and our bags to load in a motorcycle that had run out of gas. He tied it to the thin metal bars dividing our compartment from the one behind us.  It was too long, and the little swing door couldn’t be shut, so the fit Chiva man sat on the end of it – using his inside leg as a brace – and resumed his perch half-hanging out the truck. I wondered how long he’d been doing this; he seemed completely at ease with his work.

I talked to the mother; that’s how I learned the ages of her children. They were headed to the town before ours. She was suffering quite a bit  from motion sickness - called mareo. She had to use her own black bag, and her son threw up twice. She had a stash of bags in her purse. I silently admired how smart she looked in the wedge heels and pencil skirt she was wearing during this wretched ride; chances were she’d not intended to travel this way, either.

Mareo is bad enough, add to this the anxiety of your child being sick and the fear of them throwing up all over themselves or you, or someone else. Let’s not even talk about the prospect of crashing. I eyed the motorcycle warily and made sure Kidlet didn’t sit between it and the front of the compartment. My poor grasp of physics has allowed me to rationalize all sorts of ineffective safety measures for driving without a carseat or even a seat belt – par for the course here in Colombia, which does not enforce its seatbelt laws. Kidlet is currently under the impression that if I hold onto her tightly in a taxi, this will keep her from flying through the windshield should we be rear-ended.

Sitting in cab of the potato truck.

Sitting in cab of the potato truck.

The truck driver must have been nearing his final destination because he was now unloading passengers without picking up new ones. In the end it was just me and Kidlet, and the fit Chiva man with the handsome eagle face. Kidlet and I were moved to the enormous cabin of the truck (more vegetables there) where I finally got a look at the truck driver, a sweaty man vigorously eating an ice cream stick.

We arrived in a busy town where stealthy looking men eyed us curiously. The thing about small towns, wherever they are, is that people sitting around on the main streets doing not very much at the moment tend to keep an eye on everything. That can make you feel protected by the gaze of others, or simply subjected to the gaze of others. I felt subjected here, and panicked a little: Was this my destination? If so, I didn’t want to stay.  But the fit man said, “No. It’s the next town. We’re going to drop you off here and then [lots of Spanish].”

I was supposed to turn the corner, walk down the road, and encounter local transportation. The driver reiterated this as the fit man rapidly unloaded all of our things onto the sidewalk.

The baton passing had ended, one town short. I paid the fit Chiva man 10,000 COP for our “fare” and took on our luggage: the biggish backpack X- had lent me in Bogotá, a small backpack I wore over my shoulder, Kidlet’s lightweight rolling suitcase, the tiny backpack she wore on her back, and a large umbrella I’d paid $13 for in Medellín and refused to part with until I’d used it more than once.

The Chiva truck rumbled one way down the street, and we went the opposite way. So far I’d paid 3,000 COP (jeep driver), 10,000 (private car driver), 1500 (lobo guy who got us the Chiva) and now another 10,000. About $13 so far. The bus would’ve been cheaper. Kidlet tugged at me and complained of thirst and heat.

I promised Kidlet we’d get something cold to drink before the next leg of our trip. She negotiated for something ice cream-like; I consented. Following the instructions of fit Chiva man, we walked a few hilly streets until we encountered another small bus station, occupied by a woman who looked almost identical to the woman we’d seen at the last bus station.

I explained where I was going, asking “Está lejos de aquí?”  It was impossible to get a straight answer, but it sounded like not too far.  I was assigned a driver, took Kidlet to the bathroom and when we came out, we had a different driver. He informed me that the original driver didn’t know the town we were going to as well as he did. I nodded wearily and bought Kidlet a bright green popsicle (limonada) that she set upon with gusto.

Our driver had a conspiratorial way of speaking, but I suspect the only secret he was sharing was that he was overcharging me - don’t tell anyone. I was so tired, I didn’t care if it cost me $3, $5 or $7 to get to this destination town, this town I had not chosen, this town I was being sent to with the promise that there was room for me. (I didn’t know it then but we were approaching the busiest holiday weekend of the year in Colombia.)

I wanted to be done with the waiting, the stomach-churning roads, the looming prospect of vomit, the risk of losing a bag, and the uncertainty. I just wanted to be where we were going, and I hoped it would be a place we could stay for a while. My intention before I left Seattle was to spend 1-2 weeks in a place before going on to another, but we were moving every five or six days, one day of which I had to spend arranging travel, researching and reserving housing, and packing. Moving around is a huge time-suck for someone like me, so unused to it.

I agreed to pay 6,000 COP ($3) for the ride. Then the driver decided he could fit in more passengers. A grinning man in his early 60s climbed into the front passenger seat and began chatting me up. In Medellín I’d conversed with a 7- year old with a speech impediment who had only two of his eight front teeth, and that child’s Spanish was more comprehensible than this guy’s.

The grinning man was very  like that wizened drunkard character in old kung fu movies, the one who sits around laughing at others inanely and is cursed and literally slapped around by the rest of the cast.  I was so tired. What was this man talking about? He just kept talking, laughing at his own jokes, and asking me questions that he wouldn’t allow me time to reply to. He asked me my religion, and told me he was Catholic, and how unfortunate for me that I was not Catholic. He told me that he had a cousin and nephew in Virginia, but he had never been there. He told me the taxi driver was a bit of a thief, but not too bad. And he said a lot more I gave up trying to decipher.

At last, a final passenger was located, another old man. He greeted me with a buenas tardes, then said nothing the whole time we traveled. Thank goodness. Kidlet finished her popsicle and resumed her usual position, with her head on my lap.

Twenty minutes down the road we dropped off the grinning man, at a makeshift public square that was really an empty lot between the highway and some dirt paths lined with shacks. It was a festive assembly of hillbillies. Little food tables lacking Postobon umbrellas, half-clothed children standing around, loud women and an outdoor saloon. As grinning man exited the car, I saw just how raggedy he was, but he fit in here. He headed toward a path in the distance and some other aging men drinking beers in the saloon began yelling at him, not in a friendly way. It seemed at least one of them was promising to kick his ass later, after he finished his drinking and having his good time. But later! You can count on it! The grinning man took on a sour expression and shouted back a few choice words punctuated with a vulgar hand gesture, and then loped off unfazed, waving his arm behind him as if to say Whatever, man.

A long-haired woman took his seat in the car and we were on our way again. Another ten or twenty minutes, and we reached a town. Our destination! The town had a great vibe about it and was filled with families, music and horses. There was a magnificent basilica overlooking the plaza. The long-haired woman and the old man disembarked, and the taxi driver continued. Supposedly our hostel was a handful of blocks from the plaza, but I knew better by now than to believe such things.

It turned out to be about 1.5 miles and uphill from the town center. Had I walked, I’d have despaired for not knowing how close or far I was from it. But it was more than I’d hoped, and I had the feeling it might be exactly the place we needed to be. I paid the taxi driver the 11,000 COP he asked for (!). As the he took our things from the car,  I felt the journey was over, for a while at least. As we walked up the stone driveway, Kidlet turned to me, and said, “Mama. I like this place. We should stay here.”

Five days later, we are still here, and we don’t know when we are leaving!

Besos,

HSofía

Happy to Be Here

Happy to Be Here

Traveling in Colombia – With the Aid of Others, Part 1

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Dear Friends,

I’m writing this on the first day of the New Year, and the 21st day we are here in Colombia. We’ve left Medellín and wound up in a small town that feels like the place I came to Colombia to be in – though it was never in my plans.

The difference between traveling and a vacation is you take a vacation seeking a specific outcome, typically relaxation, rejuvenation, a pleasurable break from the usual stresses. But with traveling you are going for the sake of going, to experience the everything, as well as the highlights. You know the highlights might be found – are likely to be found – in the places you didn’t expect, in the tedious, the accidental, even after something terrible.

Getting to where we are is a story.  I’ve learned that I’m traveling in Colombia with the aid of others. By no means am I blazing any trails. Let me explain.

Yesterday we left the smallish town of Amagá, one hour’s drive south of Medellín. The eco hostel we’d made reservations to stay at was a no-go; a death in the proprietor’s family required her to take leave of the property suddenly. She told us we could stay one night, and made arrangements for us to stay at the hostel of her friend in another town – “two hours away,” she said.

Leaving eco hostel in the jeep.

The following morning, Paola called a private jeep to collect us and our too-many bags; she gave the driver specific instructions for getting us to a bus. The driver was a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned mestizo man. His head and neck were thick blocks and his profile Dick Tracy-esque, but his demeanor was pleasant, and he tossed us and our things in the jeep like we were rolled-up socks. 

I expected to be dropped off at the plaza mayor in Amagá, where there is a busy bus station, but he unloaded us on the side of the road that leads into and out of Amagá. He explained why but I couldn’t decipher it. Kidlet and I settled on the grass next to a prepared food stand. We were in the second phase of our baton-act. We were the baton, and the jeep driver passed us on to the young woman tending the stand, relaying to her what Paola had relayed to him: that we were visitors, where we’d come from, and where we were going. 

The young woman listened but barely nodded. The jeep driver left, and I took her closed expression as a sign that we were on our own. I knew the name of the town we were going to - no problem.  As we waited, I jotted down in my notebook:

And so here we were, Kidlet and I, on the side of a busy road waiting for a bus, who knows what time it will arrive or how much it costs. We are waiting here, breathing in the exhaust fumes of a thousand vehicles with the expectation that one of them will take us where we have been told to go.

After twenty minutes of playing in the dirt and counting various sorts of vehicles, Kidlet says she is bored now. Meanwhile I cannot slip into daydreams because I have to fetch a bus. The way you do this is you stand up to see the destination placard on the front of an approaching bus, and if it is going to the right place, you hold up your fingers to indicate the number of seats you need. If the bus is full, the driver will clearly indicate “No” with broad hand and arm movements, removing his hands from the wheel, even, to express the fullness of the bus, the definitive-ness of the No. Or  … he might not do anything other than keep on driving past you. I learned this by watching, by seeing other people on the side of the road do this.

As time wore on and bus after bus passed by, full, the young woman at the food stand suddenly animated and began talking to me in rapid Spanish. She was explaining to me why I was having such poor luck – the holiday (New Year’s Eve), the time of day (9:30am), and so on. Then she stood up and joined me in attempting to hail a bus. Dozens passed by. Only one stopped – a fancy coach, and she spoke to the driver, then waved him on; she indicated that he wanted an exorbitant amount.

Meanwhile, other travelers – mostly motorcyclists – began to patronize her stand. She had a small table with the ubiquitous Postobon umbrella for shade; on the table was a clear box half-filled with baseball-sized fritters. I don’t know what they were filled with – meat, cheese, platanos? They looked tasty, but I wasn’t hungry; we’d eaten breakfast at Paola’s hostel; sweet pastry for Kidlet, and granola with banana juice as milk for me. I knew from experience that it wasn’t a great idea to travel on Colombian roads with too much food – especially oily or sweet foods – in our bellies. In hindsight, this was the best decision I was to make all day.

Waiting at the Baseball Fritter Stand

Waiting at the Baseball Fritter Stand

After 45 minutes of waiting, things began to happen. A family had joined us on the side of the road, and they hailed a passing car with only a single occupant. Just one of their party needed transport; they’d done the typical Colombian thing of accompanying him until he’d boarded his ride. The baseball fritter stand woman jumped in and negotiated on my behalf a fare and an agreement – that the driver would take us in his car as far as another town that was on the way to our destination.

Having traveled to Latin America in the past, I knew this was typical … and I didn’t feel unsafe. Hitchhiking is common in places where most people don’t have their own cars. And the buses were all packed. The guest of honor took leave of his family, kissing all 7 or 8 of them goodbye, and hopped into the front passenger seat. Kidlet and I climbed into the back seat. At the last moment, the guest of honor jumped out again and snagged an old man from the side of the road as our final passenger – in moments, the car went from one occupant to five. Maximum efficiency, the car was now safely full. 

A few minutes into the ride, the guest of honor, a man about my age with a wide, friendly face and a shaved head, turned to me and began talking. His knowledge of English was nothing, but he possessed the wonderful characteristic of being able to slow his pace of speech and speak in sentences that a beginner-bordering-on-intermediate speaker of his language would understand.

I’ve been told by new speakers to English that I also possess this ability to adapt my speech to the comprehension level of the non-native speaker. In every place I’ve traveled, I’ve found this to be an uncommon trait; most people respond to my broken Spanish by speaking louder, faster (!) or by exaggerating the pronunciation of arbitrary words to such a degree that they are no more recognizable than if they’d been said rapidly.

It is an interesting “talent” that – so far as I can tell – is part enthusiasm for communicating with someone of a different culture (from which arises a natural patience), and part intuition: specifically the ability to unconsciously rephrase ones thoughts before uttering them.  There is a space between the thoughts in your head and the mouth from which you give them voice – an alchemic process can occur there, if you have a playful love for words.  It is probably not unlike preparing food among people who love to cook; the fun is all in the challenge, and seeing what you can make. 

In any case, this man was a pleasure to communicate with. And he was the latest bearer of the baton. He had received us from the baseball fritter stand woman and conveyed to the driver what needed to happen. He asked us the usual questions: Where were we from? Why were we in Colombia? How long were we here for?  I explained that my Spanish was very poor, but a primary purpose of coming here was to improve it. I told him I found the accents here in Antioquía to be very different from that of Bogotá, to which he replied that the Antioquían accent was superior in both accuracy and beauty.

“The Bogotano accent is … is … well, it’s just ugly!” he said. I laughed at this, as did he and the driver, but they laughed long and hard into each others faces, and jostled at each other with their elbows. I had laughed at his good-natured regional pride, but I don’t know if there was more to it for them. People drop parts of words here and lengthen out other parts; we are out in “the country,” lots of cows and lots of horses.  Maybe their accent here is similar to that of a drawl, so maybe he was making an ironic joke, as a US southerner or Texan might make about their accent being “better” than the “standard” Northern accent one hears on national broadcasts. Who knows. Humor can be tough in another language.

Eventually the man with the shaved head had to go. I believe his name was Cheve, “like Chevere” he said, which I later learned is an expression akin to “Awesome!” As we approached his stop,  he passed the baton on to the driver, reiterating that Kidlet and I were to be looked after, and that he was to get us to where he’d promised. Anxious, I double-checked that we were indeed headed to my destination town.”Not there exactly, but it is on the way,” Cheve said to me in Spanish. “Tranquila, tranquila!

Then he took his little backpack and bid us all farewell with great cheer, shaking the hand even of the old man in the back seat. He paid the driver 2,000 COP ($1), and stepped out of the car, at a Y in the road occupied by a large food stand. A dozen people stood around, eating and watching cars go by. When he turned away from us it was to greet them, smiling. I was sad to see him go.

Twenty minutes later, we approached a proper town and the old man next to us got out. He had attempted to talk to me in the car when he first got in, but was missing quite a few teeth and seemed not 100% mentally present. He kept muttering then giggling to himself – he found something about me very amusing. I could see him in the reflection of the window watching my face. He got out and paid the driver about 4,000 COP. I noticed then that he had a colostomy bag, the tube extending from the unzipped fly of his pants to an ordinary black shopping bag he held in his hand; a thick shawl – maybe a poncho folded in half – was slung over his shoulder, serving the dual purpose of keeping him warm and mostly concealing his medical apparatus.

Our driver waved to the old man and drove off, commenting to me that he was “un pescado … hombre.” I automatically agreed, “Sï,” although I had no idea what that meant. The man was fishy? He was a “fishy old man?” Was that a compliment? Was it dismissive? Like “old coot?” No idea. My little portable dictionary was of no help. Later, I was to learn that “pescado” is possibly another slang for “cool.”

A few blocks later, the driver arrived at a busy stretch in town. He beckoned a young, lean, lobo-looking guy to the car window and passed the baton. Next thing I knew, the lobo guy was grabbing all my stuff and Kidlet and I were evading motorcycles and buses to cross the road to a storefront transport station. A young woman sitting at a desk looking rather official by comparison talked with him rapidly. Kidlet and I stood there, completely at the mercy of these strangers. We were now five or so people removed from Paola, owner of the eco hostel in Amagá … would we be lost in translation?

I felt we might be pushing our luck here. And how far were we from our destination, anyway? It was only “two hours” away and we were approaching the third hour, so surely we must be close? I held onto that as faith; we could not be far, so we would be okay.

… to be continued in Part 2.

 

Besos,
HSofía

 

First Impressions of Medellín, Colombia

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Dear Friends,

I’d hoped to write up and post something on our first night, but it’s been difficult to find the energy and time (simultaneously) to complete a blog post.  Kidlet wakes up about twenty minutes after I do every morning (6:15am) and goes to sleep at 10pm with her arms wrapped around my neck. Just about every night I intend to stay up after she does, to write, but I either fall asleep unwittingly, or voluntarily succumb to the sleep monster.

View from a window at Museo Antioquia

View from a window at Museo Antioquia, Medellín

The side effects of sleep deprivation for me: less energy, less patience, sugar cravings, haggard appearance, worse parenting, susceptibility to illness (already increased while traveling), and overall lack of well-being. So I choose sufficient sleep over completed pieces. It’s not a choice I like to make, but it is what it is. Writing a coherent post takes a level of attention I’m usually not afforded unless I opt to stay indoors and miss the daylight.

That’s what’s happening now – it’s almost 10am and we’re still in our hostel here in Medellín. Kidlet is playing a Doc McStuffins app on her personal electronic device, and I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, so I’m counting on the fact that not much will be opening for another hour or two anyhow. Colombia is close enough to the equator that we have almost twelve hours of daylight. Winter Solstice? What’s that?! Here in Medellín, the difference between December 21st and June 21st in terms of daylight is 45 minutes.

I’d like to backtrack a bit to our leaving Bogotá, which is where my last post left off.  I opted for flying to Medellín, after two long bus rides in the previous week. Kidlet had informed me, “I never want to ride a bus for a long time again.” I told her there were likely long bus rides in our future, but I could delay that time for a bit longer. I talked to some other travelers and they informed me that it’s a 9-12 hour bus ride from Bogo to Medellín, a road distance of 444km, or 275 miles. The flight? One hour. I splurged and spent $200 on one way plane tickets for us both. It was worth it.

After quite a bit of frustrating days-on end drama related to buying our Viva Colombia (a budget airline equivalent to Southwest Air in the USA) tickets, it was a relief to have a downright easy and pleasant experience FLYING them.  I was apprehensive about our luggage situation and had spent hours carefully repacking for the flight but was surprised to discover that – at least for domestic flights – security was a breeze. No line, no removal of toiletries, no removal of shoes. How surprising given the level of security there is in Bogotá; police, security guards and/or military are everywhere! Yet the airport atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful. The flight was easy and the plane was clean and comfortable. It wasn’t the cattle call rush into the plane that I’d expected, even though we were in Group 3 for seating. It was great.

Arriving in Medellin - Viva Colombia was great, once I was able to acquire our tickets!

Arriving in Medellin – Viva Colombia was great, once I was able to acquire our tickets!

An hour later we landed in Medellín and the driver we’d hired through our hostel was waiting amd holding a sign for me: UIAFIDO. I am long-used to seeing my first name wrecked, and nobody wrecks it quite like Spanish-speaking people. It’s one reason I changed my middle name to “Sofía.”

I had only a few thousand COP on me, so our driver, a muscularly beefy guy with a friendly face, grabbed my big backpack (lent to me by X-) and took us upstairs to the ATM. Two days later, Kidlet mentioned casually to me that while I was focused on the ATM, the paramedics had walked by with a dead guy on a stretcher. She was standing right next to me the whole time but I saw nothing of the sort.  ”I think he was probably dead,” Kidlet said. “His eyes were open and he wasn’t breathing or talking or moving or anything.” Well, in any case, it just goes to show what you can miss when your back is turned and you’re thinking about money.

The three of us walked to the parqueadero, where – in typical Colombian fashion – there was a woman selling little bags of bread. I told her “No, gracias,” a phrase I’ve learned to say automatically. She told us we three were a beautiful family and to have a blessed day! LOL.

We loaded up into the taxi and Edwin began the hour-long drive into the city. The airport we flew into (MDE) is at a higher elevation than the city of Medellín, which lies in the Aburrá Valley (at 5000ft or 1500m). At first the road from the airport went up, up, and up. And around and around. More winding roads. We passed lots of horses and farm land, it was very beautiful and warm. The architecture was a bit traditional – thatched roof buildings – and there was lots of roadwork. There is some kind of building boom going on because there are billboards promising beautiful views and well-designed houses and flats – coming soon!Kidlet was stoic the first half hour, but just as we began to hit the outskirts of the city, she announced she needed to puke. Then we began descending into the city – still winding around and around and around. Kidlet puked again. At this point I was especially grateful we hadn’t taken the bus. I was also feeling queasy.

Still, a long taxi ride is always good for the views and people watching. My initial impressions: Medellín is supremely picturesque. Very green with terra cotta colored high-rises, and lush mountains encircling everything. I also noticed immediately that there are more black people here. I saw more black Colombians on the hour-long drive between the airport to our hostel than
I had seen in the previous two weeks in Bogotá and the Coffee Region. Medellín is kind of “famous” for its beautiful women, said to be the most beautiful in Colombia. What I saw was women of all kinds – far more diversity than I’d seen in the northern suburbs and La Candelaria of Bogo. And everything I’d heard about the beauty standard here of big, round butts and bustiness was true. I am still quite astonished at the roundness of the women’s butts here! I don’t know if they get implants or wear special pants with inserts, or if it’s a combination of genetics and special exercises (or all of the above?!) but it’s amazing.  The people in Medellín also seem taller than the ones in Bogotá, on the whole. And friendlier, warmer, like they have more time for you. I have to wonder in large part if that’s what the “most beautiful women” piece comes from – after all, what’s more beautiful than giving people your kind and patient attention?  I had been apprehensive about sticking out as an ungainly ugly duckling here in Medellín, but seeing the variety of sizes, shapes, heights, colors and facial features made me feel more comfortable. Another observation: drivers here were a tad more courteous than I’d previously seen.
Downtown Medellín, on drive to our hostel.

Downtown Medellín, on drive to our hostel.

Then we suddenly hit a lot of traffic. And the streets were mobbed. Edwin pointed out that we were downtown. I saw narrow sidewalks full of people. Storefronts are tiny and open right on the street so you see people sitting in their seats waiting to see the eye doctor or whomever. People selling socks on the sidewalk, a man going from car to car hawking a basket half-filled with candy – leftover from some holiday? I have more to say about the level of selling and buying that goes on here … from a Seattleite’s perspective, it’s mind-boggling.  More on that in my next post, I think.

The hostel we’re staying at is not in a posh neighborhood of Medellín, and I was very cautious initially. But after four days here, I like it. It’s just normal people, and it’s also not far from the center of things. There are corner restaurants all over the place where you can get cheap food, and the local stop for the Metro – Colombia’s only urban rail system – is about six blocks away. We’ve gotten out and done some touristy things such as ride the Metro, and see Plaza Botero, Plaza Berría, Parque Explora, and the Botanical Garden. I’ll write on those later.Sadly, tomorrow we are leaving; before we left Bogotá, I’d booked a hostel outside the city for a few nights. But I’m already thinking about how to return. I like Medellín very much! The problem is finding affordable housing. We are staying in a nice, safe, convenient place that’s close to things, but at $42/night it’s too expensive for more than a few days.  Tonight I’ll need to do some (more) research now that I’ve spent a little time in the city and look for something that’s closer to $20-25/night.  It’s tough to find because I prefer a private room (Kidlet’s safety is my number one priority) and I don’t know how doable that is, but I would love at least another week here. We are also traveling right now at peak holiday season, so rooms are at a premium for that reason.

Well, time to get on with our day. It’s 11 o’clock now and enough dilly-dallying.

besos,
HSofía

 

Exploring – and Leaving – Bogotá

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Dear Friends,

On this morning I’m glad to report that in a few short hours, Kidlet and I will be on an airplane, bound for Medellín. I cannot wait to be out of Bogotá.  I don’t dislike the city – I actually wish we’d had more opportunity to explore it, as I felt happy when exploring it – but it seems to not be good for my mind.

The altitude sickness I described in my first post is much improved on this second visit after our time in Salento – maybe because of our slow ascent by bus this time instead of by airplane? I’ve also been religiously taking coca leaf tea three times a day, two teabags per cup this time. I feel better, not physically ill.  I still lose breath too easily, still wake up repeatedly in the night (after the first night back) but that’s nothing compared to the anxiety I cannot shake.

The anxiety makes me feel like a penned animal, pacing and pacing, waiting to be let out. The seeming unshakability of it is scary. I don’t think I’ve smiled or laughed this little in years. I’ve had truly frightening thoughts here, a strong sense of wanting to erase myself – to vanish, to simply not exist. I try to keep my thoughts to myself but something about my mood must have alarmed Kidlet because yesterday she said, apropos of nothing, “Mom?! I want you to stay alive.”

In short, I need to get out of Bogotá. It’s a shame, though, because we had a day of sightseeing – only our second – that I really enjoyed. After a lot of frustration and false starts and tedium (to be elaborated upon in another writing, on the challenges of solo parenting a young child while on the road after half your stuff gets stolen), we finally made it to La Candelaria, the historic core of Bogotá. I called a taxi to take us from our place near Usaquen, a posh neighborhood by Colombian standards, down to the old and raggedy section. It was a longish cab ride even with light traffic. We passed the Biblioteca Nacional, which I had wanted to visit; I almost asked our cab driver to let us out there, but figured we were still a distance away from Plaza de Bolívar, which was our destination. I figured we’d try to hit it on our day out.

We made it to Plaza de Bolívar at around 9:30am. On first sights, the Plaza was a real disappointment, ranking nowhere on my personal list of beautiful plazas. There were a few tourists, souvenir hawkers,  and some tents and an M-19 booth (perhaps related), as well as the requisite military, security guards and police; the National Capitol end was blocked with temporary construction walls; and the steps and walkway in front of the cathedral of Bogotá were filthy with dirt, puddles and trash. My heart sank a bit. But Kidlet immediately took to the pigeons, and I kept an eye on her as I tried to get my bearings.

Another problem I’ve had in Bogotá is not knowing which end is up. My natural sense of direction is pretty poor, but in Bogotá my internal compass might as well be on the moon. No matter how many times I looked at a map I couldn’t make sense of what direction I was facing. I wasn’t even sure (until long after we’d left) which building in the square was the National Capitol and which was the Palace of Justice; given that one is on the north side and one is on the south, figuring this out would have been very helpful in terms of orienting myself.

I finally gave up and just walked around. It’s an interesting area. I’m not sure I’ve seen buildings of such a grand scale squished together so tightly. Many of the streets running off the plaza are lovely, quiet, narrow cobblestoned streets, with beautiful buildings bearing little hint of what’s inside, where the entrances are, or whether they are open. I was hoping to get into a museum – by this time we had spent seven (7) full, non-traveling days in Bogotá and had not stepped foot in a single museum. I zig-zagged our way to the Archaeological Museum, which had been on my must-see list, but it was not open. This was true of just about everywhere, unsurprising given that it was Christmas Eve.

I was a little bummed about this, but walking around looking at beautiful architecture and old things makes me happy. I felt a bit like my old self again, content to look and look, though the task of keeping track of Kidlet is omnipresent.

Because I had no idea where we were going we kept ending back in Plaza de Bolívar, and as hour after hour passed, it became more lively, more attractive; maybe still not beautiful, and still definitely filthy, but the M-19 was blaring some great old music and there were more smiling people in the square taking photos, more pigeons … I don’t know how or why, but it looked better as the day progressed.

Plaza de Bolivar around noon.

Plaza de Bolivar around noon.

We took the opportunity to see several churches: the primary cathedral in Plaza de Bolívar, the Temple of San Agustín, Candelaria Church, the incredible Sanctuary of Our Lady of Carmel (a fairly young church but my favorite by far) andm just outside of La Candelaria, (Bogotá’s oldest) Church of San Francisco, begun in 1557.

Approaching the Church of San Francisco was an interesting experience. It’s located on a major thoroughfare, very near to the Gold Museum (also on my priority list, also closed). I don’t know if it was just because it was Christmas Eve, but this thoroughfare, known as Carrera 7, was closed to car traffic and lined with vendors and hawkers of wares. It was quite a sight.

The church itself is ancient-looking and graffitied. You can tell from looking at it, right across the street from a modern glass tower, that it’s a relic. As we approached the black hole of an entrance, I couldn’t even tell if it was open because there’s a big wooden screen just inside the narthex. Outside this entrance, leaning against the outer wall of the building was a rather despairing mendicant reaching his hand out and exhorting every passerby. But before him, we passed another another man lying on the stones in the middle of the sidewalk. He was on his back with his belongings around and under him, but his shirt was open and his belly exposed. There was a rope wrapped several times around his waist – I think this was how he kept his belongings tethered to himself –  and his belly was exposed, showing several alarming large lumps and protrusions, scars and sores. He was asleep but his legs were crossed and his knees up. His face was covered by a red cap, and his whole manner was very relaxed, as if he were snoozing on a grassy knoll by a stream, not on rocks in the middle of the city with hundreds, if not thousands, of people streaming past. Everyone, including us, just walked around him.

Inside the church, we were met with the scent of frankincense burning – possibly my favorite smell in all the world. There was a large crowd – different from the other churches we’d been to, where only a handful of people sat in the pews or worshipped at the altars. Something was going on way down at the other end of the nave, people with colorful balloons in clusters, and the call and response of the priest in Latin, I think.  We observed what we could (not much, the main altar was impossible to see) for a few minutes and then it ended, and people began exiting in droves. We left, too, through a side door, and beggars were waiting there for us, politely pleading, then we stepped fully into the light and there were women and youth on the sidewalk selling wheat-colored reeds in plastic, and burning frankincense in black pots, oh how I love that smell; we turned left and the exterior wall of this 500-year old church was lined with lottery vendors and their placards of numbers in blue and red.

Barrio Las Nieves, near the National Library

Barrio Las Nieves, near the National Library

After this, we weaved around, and continued down Carrera 7 into a neighborhood called Barrio Las Nieves, and we found the Biblioteca Nacional! But they were closing, they closed at noon on Christmas Eve, and we had been out for hours, and it was just past that. Oh the luck! And I still had no idea where the Art Deco Museum was, but I was sure it was not open, either. Kidlet and I continued circling around and walking, and in my mind I began to plot walking all the way back home – well past Calle 100, but I knew with Kidlet this was unrealistic. We were only at Calle 26 when I decided to be brave and take a local bus. (I didn’t want to risk calling a taxi on the street again after our first and last experience doing that). I was delighted to see that I didn’t have to pay for Kidlet and the fare for me was the equivalent of about 60 cents. We sat down and I felt really good about myself. And then we rode past the National Museum, which, remarkably, appeared to be open.

Just my luck! Except I was feeling tired and weak and wanted nothing more than to sit still and get home. A few blocks later a couple got on with their young child, and one of that party was wearing a cologne that smelled like a cross between nail polish and the most ozone depleting hair spray. Even that didn’t make me leave my seat until we arrived in Usaquen. Another hour of walking later (thanks to my poor sense of direction), and we were home.

It was a good day, and I am sorry there was so much of Bogotá I didn’t get to see. Riding the bus I was reminded of how I was just on one road – Carrera 7 – and yet the city stretched westward well beyond Carrera 100. With that in mind I didn’t feel so bad about how much I’d missed; because no matter if I’d managed to get into a museum or two, it was just a fraction of the city, anyway.

We still have to return to Bogotá before we head home – it’s our departure city. I have mixed feelings about returning. On the one hand, I could maybe make another go at the highlights, the Salt Cathedral, other places. On the other, I mostly feel terrible here, and do I really want to end my trip on that note? I guess we’ll see. But for now, it’s on to other parts of Colombia and I am so happy to be leaving again; onward to Medellín!

Besos,

HSofía

Travel in Colombia: Long Bus Rides

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Dear Friends,

Checking out the scenery.

Six hours in …

We are back in Bogotá. That may sound strange to those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook (am I on anything else? Google+) because the last time I blogged, I was in Bogotá. Well, that was five or six days ago and we left this capital city for Zona Cafetera, spent four nights in the lovely small town of Salento, and have returned to Bogotá for Christmas. I am writing this post as I wait for our laundry to wash, and am drinking a big mug of coca leaf tea to fend off any symptoms of altitude sickness.

We traveled by bus, specifically the company Express Bolivariano. These were more comfortable than the Greyhound buses I’ve ridden in the United States, and in Colombia I guess they are a sort of first class bus. The two buses Kidlet and I took (to Armenia and back) were 2G (Second Generation) buses: new, very clean (including the bathrooms, but bring your own paper and hand soap and do not try to flush the paper down the toilet), with seats that lean back a long way, movies on screens that hang from the ceiling (be prepared for lots of action films; it’s the driver’s preference), plenty of leg room, and even free Wi-Fi (it worked more often than not).

Sounds great, yeah!? Well these are the comforts you might spring for if you’re able because the reality is that traveling by road in Colombia is rather difficult. A long-time friend commented on a Facebook status I posted about the unpleasant prospect of a 16-hour bus ride to Cartagena:

While frustrating and time consuming I am sure, I would imagine long bus rides through a foreign country could be an opportunity to see areas of the world you would otherwise never see, so long as you can be sure to make your connections to eventually make it back home safe and sound.

 

Mountain roads. It goes on and on and on.

Mountain roads. It goes on and on and on.

Yes. And no. I personally do not mind bus rides. The commute allows me time to process wherever I’ve just been and prepare myself for whatever is coming next. Alone, I would use this time to think, write, read, listen to audiobooks, watch movies and doze. But with Kidlet everything is a little bit different – mainly in that I have spent more time being alert to her needs and anticipating how any hiccup in travel experience will affect her. She suffers from motion sickness, and we have the wrist bands and we use the dramamine. On the way to the coffee region, we took a night bus, and she slept 4.5 of the 7 hours it took us to get there. That was great! She had a light snack and then played with her personal electronic device and then put herself to sleep until we arrived in Armenia at 3:30 in the morning. We had to sit in the bus station until the Western Union office opened at 8am because I had run out of cash and my debit card was not working. She amazed me with her patience. She kept asking “When are we leaving,” which is a little stressful, but she maintained a pleasant attitude and occupied herself.

Unfortunately, I had only slept one hour on the bus. Just as I had dozed off, the altitude changes woke me up with major ear pressure pain.  I’ve experienced this before when flying with a stuffy nose (and I had a stuffy nose this time). A decongestant might have helped but I didn’t have any on hand. So I suffered in silence in the dark all the way there. By the time we arrived to Armenia the pain had dissipated but I was exhausted. Kidlet wrote/drew a 17-chapter Pacman story in a little sketchbook I’d brought for her, and I took about four micro-naps as we sat on our backpack in the terminal. We made do.

The bus experience on the way back was something else entirely. I thought, “Aha! I’m not booking another night trip again because sleep is fundamental!” So we took the 10:45am out of Armenia back to Bogotá. This time of year, more people are heading out of Bogo than going into it, so the bus was only 1/3 occupied. I felt pretty pleased with myself. This was great. We’d be in Bogo before dark and we could even get our grocery shopping and laundry done before bed, and wake up to clean, dry clothes and plenty of food. We’d hit the day running!

Well. As they say, you plan and God plans. And God obviously had other plans. Common sense might have informed me that traveling on the Friday before Christmas was probably not a great idea if travel time was high on the list. The traffic was at times, unreal. Truly. The main highway is only one lane each way the majority of the distance, and it is a winding mountain road, so traveling at 70 miles an hour is not even remotely an option.

Kidlet chatting me up as she draws on her personal tablet while listening to music.

Kidlet chats me up as she draws on her personal tablet while listening to music.

The wild thing about this trip is that we only traveled a distance of 299 km. That’s right, 186 miles. That’s the distance between where I live in Seattle and Portland, which takes just under 3.5 hours – 5 if the traffic is horrific. Well, this return trip took 11.5 hours. We spent almost two hours sitting completely still on a mountain pass because a gasoline truck had jackknifed and tipped over and lost its load, which had to be cleaned up lest our bus and other vehicles slide right off the mountain. Safety first. I knew it was bad when the bus driver left his seat and came up into the cabin and sat across from me to watch the end of Shooter with us.

Traveling by day was preferable in that I was able to get a full night of sleep by the time we arrived to our place in Bogo. Keep in mind that this 11.5 hour bus ride was preceded by a 1.5 hour bus ride to Armenia from Salento. And then followed up with 30 minutes standing in line for a taxi, and then a breezy 20 minute taxi ride. Kidlet vomited five times – a record for her! Fortunately, I was armed with all manners of little plastic bags for her to puke in. (I highly recommend this.) Save all those little bags they give you when you buy empanadas or soap or anything! She was unable to keep any food down, so when we arrived to our destination she was starving. It was too late to go to the grocery store (forget laundry, I was toast!) but I had two flour tortillas in my backpack that I grilled up for her, and foraged at my friend’s house for a handful of raisins and a little mango juice box. Kidlet was satisfied. I went to bed without dinner, but it was fine.

There are more details I would like to write about … the way Colombianos handle these kinds of travel delays, for example, but this “short” post is already too long. I will just say, that travel here is not for the impatient. People who can afford to, fly. The freedom of the road I’m familiar with in the Pacific Northwest is not accessible to me here – maybe if I traveled by motorcycle, which I absolutely do not and would not unless under duress!

And I am now contemplating where we will head to next. I wanted to make our way up to Santa Marta or Cartagena, but the flight I wanted was not available. Do I want to brave a 16-hour bus ride there or change plans entirely? Decisions, decisions ….

besos,
hsofia

 

Street of a small city we passed through as we descended/ascended the mountains.

Two women talking along the road to Bogotá.