Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Caribbean Waters Part I

Seventy minutes of flight and the warm, humid air coats our Gringo skin. Those who were battling allergies in Bogota are now cured quickly by the Caribbean climate. It feels as if we´re in a complete different country. The Spanish here is mucho más rapido and the temperature gives us warm greetings. The only similarity between the coast and Bogotá is that it rains like clockwork every afternoon. Its simply a choice between a cold shower in the high city of Bogotá or a warm shower on the coast. For now, we´ll switch it up and spend some time in the warm showers. Break out the flip flops, swimming suits, sunscreen, insect repellent and the shades. We're livin' this one Caribbean style...
Good morning Cartagena from our apt. balcony
Upon arrival to our rented flat in the Boca Grande peninsula of Cartagena, we are approached by 'Caribbean Salesmen.' "Oye chicos, coca, departamento, muy barrato, muy barrato.." The gringos have arrived and everyone there knew it. The advantage of travelling the coast during low season is the affordability of everything. We managed to score a really nice apartment/flat to comfortably accomodate all six of us with a balcony view, blender, fully equipped kitchen among other amenities for a price of $12/person/night! The disadvantage of being the only gringos in sight during this low season is that we are target for every salesmen... and there are tons of them. For now let's just call them Juan, for some reason most salesmen were named Juan or Carlos.
Our first full day, we decide to take advantage of our location, head 3 blocks north and walk the beach. The Juan's (all of them) were delighted to see us step foot on the sand. "Chicos, cerveza cervezas, snorkeling, gaseosas (sodas), muy barratos chicos.." Aaand here we go, every 30 feet we walk, we're approached by an average of 2.8 Juan's, they're aggressive and we're highly entertained. We finally find one guy who approaches us speaking broken English and his name is Johnny, he wins best salesman of the day this day for getting us to rent out his cabana and order a few cervezas from him. No need to go anywhere if you want to buy any food or beer or massages. They bring it all to you. Juan's salesman sister, Juana we'll call her loves to approach us offering masajes. They actually don't offer, they tell you, ''promocion, masaje, masaje, es una promocion," and start rubbing your shoulders or legs. Some Juanas are so aggressive, you have to show your mean gringo side and walk away or yell at them. It's an interesting game here, are we celebrities that are just so damn irresistible or are we just wearing $ on our skin in low season? We'd all like to think the former but the latter is the reality. Day 2, we take a boat ride to Playa Blanca on an island about 25 minutes from Cartagena...

The Island:

Playa Blanca

Nearly twenty five minutes of a choppy boat ride out from Cartagena, we (only us 6) are dropped off at Playa Blanca on an island. What was strange about this? They told us to get off and everyone else on the boat kept on going. We were rather confused but went with it. As we unload the boat, 30-40 Juans and Juanas come out of the trees of the beach and start approaching us. "All hail, the gringos are here." We were all upset that none of us took a video of this scene, it was like a movie. Masajes, beers, food, ceramics, fish, ceviche... todo barrato chicos. Barrato for those who don't know español means cheap. They say everything is cheap, however we like to negotiate. Whatever price they'd quote us on, we'd respond with "pfff, no, no gracias, too much money," even if it was dirt cheap. We became master negotiators.

Jason, Mike, BJ and Dora in negotiations with Juan Uno, Dos y Tres

We had successfully denied every massage offer until Jason decided he was going to give in and buy himself a massage. This opened up the can of Juanas, once Jason lied face down on the sand and committed himself to a massage, ten other Juanas came over and attacked Reed and I, we literally would have had to run away to get away from the attack of the masajes. Dora, BJ and Mike were swimming in the bathwater called the Caribbean meanwhile before we could say "No gracias Juanas," Reed, Jason and I were all lied face down receiving the best masajes ever. No happy ending included! But for the price of $15 USD, I had four Juanas giving me a massage for thirty minutes. Twenty minutes in, I was considering how I could live on this island forever, Juana paradise. After we were in a nice relaxed state, our yummy fish lunch was awaiting us at the next cabana over.

Jason opening up the can of Juanas

Best fish lunch I've ever tasted

The rest of the day was a breeze, for some reason all of the Juanas stopped bothering us and disappeared, perhaps their daily income from us gringos had been successfully earned, congrats Juana you won in the end. Regardless, we felt victorious agains Juans, maybe because they didn't offer masajes. The todo barrato that they offered just didn't seem as appealing. Three days in Cartagena and we were ready to move up the coast to Santa Marta where prices are even more affordable and the Juan/Juana mix isn't nearly as aggressive. Three hours on a bus up the coast to Santa Marta and round 2 of Caribbean Waters begins...

Sunset from our balcony in Cartagena

Monday, September 13, 2010

Simple Lessons in Bogota

View of Bogota from top of Monserrate Mountain

The lungs draw shorter amounts of air in every breath. Half way up the mountain of Monserrate, which peaks over Bogota at nearly 11,000ft high to the east of the city, our legs weaken with every step. To our side is Hector (Dora's padre) who has been made a weekly Sunday routine of this climb. He stands about 5'5 and is 73 years young. Hector's stride is pushing the pace and making the mid-20's Gringos look rather weak in our ascent to the top of Monseratte. Bogota itself is nestled in a valley at 8,500 feet. We were drawing for deeper breaths just on our walk to the bottom of the mountain. As we near the top, beads of sweat slide down the cheek with every step in the high Colombian air with the sound of Church bells in the distance. Sunday morning church music greets us as we arrive to the top of Monseratte. The rising sun feels much warmer at the top as we can now see much more to the east at approximately 7:15am. Gasping for air and soaking up the moment with my companions, I'm amazed to see Hector calmly smiling at all of us. Is this guy for real?
Hector (not tired) & I (tired)

At 73, he just gave us lesson number #1 in this blog post: Age is only a number. Hector gracefully ascended this mountain with a 'cruise-control' pace and showed us young guns that some get better with age.
We begin to follow his lead as he shows us a place to do some abdominal workouts on rock seats. The church music complemented by the morning bird's song is just better than 'Eye of the Tiger' at this time. We explore the top of Monseratte for a good hour or so before we make the quick descent down to Bogota. Hector's amazing factor goes up on our charts as quickly as he leads us down the mountain. He begins running down with us, bouncing from step to step with plenty of spring and pep. I catch up with him as we wait for the others. "Are you really 73 years old Hector?" I ask him in Spanish. He laughs and responds that he is with a big smile on his face. He then proceeds to explain how his body has yet to deteriorate at this age, living a very active lifestyle. But at 73? really? Well, Hector just became another mentor as he gladly tells me of how great he feels. He's never even taken a pill, all natural medicines for colds and the flu, leaving fruit and vegetable shakes as the remedy of choice. Gracias Hector for making us feel your age but at the same time showing us age is only a number.
The crew on the top of Monserrate with Sunday morning church in background

On to lesson #2... Driving in Bogota Colombia!

BJ has been our Chauffeur through the streets of Bogota until the question hit me somewhat unexpectedly, "Robin you wanna drive this time?" Hmm, driving in Bogota, Colombia. I feel pretty comfortable driving manual cars and after watching BJ maneuver his way through these streets, I feel hestitant, yet so tempted. "Sure, lets do this, " I say. Two blocks in, I feel the difference in the pace of traffic and obstructions. The rules of the road here are simple... No rules. Who needs lanes? Who cares for pedestrians? Nadie, just step on the gas and keep up with traffic. One must maintain aggressive on these roads or you're causing an accident. Fortunately, BJ is co-captain and giving me tips as far as how to most efficiently navigate through these streets. Several times we come within inches of being side swiped or side swiping another vehicle. The urban jungle of Bogota was my first lesson in driving internationally. If Los Angeles traffic isn't enough fun for you, come to South America for some excitement behind the wheel!

Lesson #3: The US has more influence than I even imagined...

After 30 minutes of receiving my international drivers lesson, Dora, BJ and I end up at her parents' house (Hector y Nelly). We are greeted by passion fruit licuados (shakes). The taste of the fresh pulp is simply perfect as we begin to pick Hector's brain some more. Dora had told me that he is fascinated with our country, the US of America. So I open the can of worms and ask where this fascination comes from. The history lesson begins. From Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, Hector gives me the background on each of them and what made them so great as leaders and as people in general. Jefferson's brilliance, Lincoln's resilience and Roosevelt's work ethic. The world would not be what it was today without Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King Jr.'s innovative and revolutionary vision. After 45 minutes, I again look at Hector in amazement and ask myself who is this guru? It just goes to show that you need not be citizen of a country to know its history inside and out, one day Hector may make his way to the country adores so much to see what the American Dream is all about. What really is the American dream all about anyways? It might just be based in the principles and hard work of the aforementioned people, those who have not only changed one country but also one world.
The rest of the day was consumed by more love from Aunt Tita as she decided to treat us to an after-dinner drink of 20 year old Colombian Brandy. She had been waiting for a special occasion for... well... 20 years I suppose. We felt very fortunate and almost undeserving of such a nice gesture. I've never been a fan of Brandy, but 20 year old Colombian Brandy from the hands of one of the nicest ladies one could know. Perfecto... Salud! Now off to the coast, we start in Cartagena....

Dora y Auntie Tita pouring the Brandy, Salud!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colo Arrives in COLOMBIA

My eyes open slowly as my ears feel the pressure of the descending airplane. It's been nearly 30 hours without decent sleep, mainly resting on floors in airports (Denver, JFK, Orlando) and cat naps on the plane. The lack of rest no longer matters anymore as the captain announces en español our descent into Bogota. My restless body fills with excitement suddendly as I begin to feel giddy like a kid on Christmas morning. I ask the nice family next to me (from Bogota) about their favorite kinds of food. Without much thought, they respond with ajiaco (soup), sancocho and yucca. All sound amazing from their descriptions.
Bienvenidos a Colombia Colo! The people here in South America call me Colo (colorado) because of my red hair, not to be confused with my home state of Colorado, though ironic to them. The long line through customs quickly reminds me of the inefficiency in South America compared to that of the Estados Unidos. Though, I'm simply happy to just be back. I can't put into words what it is about this continent that fills me with so much joy.

Our group for these 3 weeks of travel through Colombia is somewhat dynamic and quite comical to the locals. Dora, from Bogota, is our tour guide and girlfriend of my good amigo BJ (college roommate). We also have Mike Cando (good buddy and my compañero on my first venture to Buenos Aires) coming from Argentina. Jason (also friend from college) is meeting me at the airport so I can be a translater and get us to Dora's Aunt's house safely via taxi. The last 2 of our group are William Reed and myself from Colorado. BJ (William), Reed (William), Jason, Mike, myself and Dora. When you see us its two tall Willy's (one 6'4 another 6'6), Mikey (Philipino), Jason from Hollywood, myself (red-head) and our gracious tour guide Dora. You just have to see us walking down the streets of Bogota to appreciate the comedy of it all. Fortunately I spot Jason in the customs line right away and we pick up our luggage. The taxi driver, Raul, brings us to Dora's Tia's house in 30 minutes. Upon arrival, we are greeted by the rest of our crew, glasses of vino and a yummy dinner of chicken, potatoes and rice. After a good hour of chatting, laughing and catching up we all slowly make our way to our respective bedrooms. The house contains 8 bedrooms, perfect for hosting us gringos!

Excited for breakfast prepared by Tita and Dora, all smiles!

I awake the next day to the calls of breakfast (desayuno). "Tita (Dora's Aunt) has breakfast prepared for us," BJ exlaims happily. The perfect way to awake our first day in Bogota. Eggs and cheese on a tortilla with Colombian Cafe. Sounds simple, tastes delicious!

The group from left: Tita, Dora, BJ, Jason, Reed, myself enjoying breakfast

We then venture to a huge market to buy food for our stay. Now this is no ordinary mercado. Tita called it the best/cheapest place to buy food in Bogota. BJ is our chaffeur through the city of Bogota, quite an interesting experience. We came within 8-12 inches of hitting other cars or people numerous times. We arrive at the plaza and quickly realize that we are the circus show of this shopping exerience. This is no Safeway or Alberton's. They bring the pigs in and slaughter them at this market. Fresh meat is an understatement here. Around every corner we walk people gather in groups to analyze us like we're either rock stars. Reed, 6'6 attracts people from all over the market. We are being analyzed like we're not human, this is a bit uncomfortable but we all laugh it off. After two hours in the market we return for a great lunch (yucca, potatoes and carne).

carne at the plaza, appetizing?

Fruit for days at the plaza

Over lunch we truly realize the significance of being in Bogota as Americans. Ten to twenty years ago, this city was in constant turmoil. People could barely walk the streets without being targeted by the drug cartels with guns or bombs. She shares stories that are still fresh in her mind, you can see it in her eyes and hear it in her words. We all quickly realize how much the city has cleaned up. The most recent president, Uribe, helped Colombia turn its 180 and become a country that us gringos can now enjoy. "Gracias a Dios y gracias a Uribe," she continually says intermittenly in the stories.

A candycane-like church 2 blocks from our place

Our newfound appreciation of being in Colombia safely, so far.... (keep your fingers crossed) leads us through the night where we find ourselves at a local bar drinking with Dora's amigas and cousins. We danced away the night with very affordable beverages and learning the local salsa dances. This is unreal, we keep saying to each other. Such a special experience thus far and so much more to come. Gracias a Dios y gracias a Uribe that we're here.

Our living area at Tita's casa, very relaxing

I now am being summoned to the patio's barbecue to help out with tonight's Colombian-style asado (bbq). If we're not exploring the city or learning salsa dances, we're gathering and enjoying meals together, such a beautiful way of life and I only hope you can vicariously experience this all with us through these words. Now, lets enjoy another meal together, can you smell the carne marinated with peppers and onions? I can, now let's eat! Until next time, Bon appetit Señoras y Señores!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September Never Gone..

Happy 1st of the month. September has arrived signifying my favorite time of year. For those going to school, its a time to step up your level of knowledge, you better know more by now kids! For sports fans, professional football is underway and the baseball season is winding its way towards October when all of the MLB magic happens. Basketball and hockey are on deck and ready to take over the airwaves as well. For those living near Aspen trees, you're about to witness some beautiful colors on the leaves. For the rest of you, just admit it.. September is a great month.

Yes I am biased, my date of birth lands at the end of this month (28th) reminding me how young I am every year. This September will be the best yet in my calculated foresight.

In seven days, my good buddy William Reed and I board a flight to migrate with the birds south. Colombia will be our place of exploration for a few weeks until September is gone then we'll continue to my 2nd home, Argentina!!! This is a time of preparation for round deux in the Southern hemisphere. The 1st round was a great learning experience and has me feeling very relaxed for this next adventure. My Spanish is polished, mas o menos and my packing is more suitable and practical this time. I no longer own a vehicle, whew! No more car payments, check! No car insurance payments, check! Substantial money in the checking account, check! No, I'm not rich by any means but I do feel more prepared to budget travel with all of the connections developed from round uno. I've parred down on many of my possessions here and its quite liberating. A great source to help my psychologically accustom myself to fewer possessions is one of my favorite blogs, Look forward to my next post on packing for travels in another country. Until then, enjoy your first day of September :)