Sunday, January 31, 2010

Playing Catch Up

Well dear blog, I have been remiss with my postings. So here's to playing a game of Catch Up...

Lima-- I really didn't see much of Lima. Flying in was delightful. It was interesting to have the world's worst bus trip one day-- cramped, hot, bumpy-- and then be escorted unexpectedly into first class on a flight the next. I relished the dichotemy and used it to greatest advantage, scurrying away snacks, sodas, and even the fleece airplane blanket. Waste not whatnot, after all. I did feel fairly out of place, wearing the same shorts and shirt the third day in a row, smelling, etc. But I spritzed some Salvatore Ferragamo on in duty-free (I have never appreciated perfume so much before), and stopped caring.

I scored a spot on a couch at a full hostel (love that because it is half price, and essentially the same as sleeping in a dorm except I got the whole living room to myself), and promptly came down with a flu. So I took it easy in Lima, or tried to as the hostel was having a big free party, after all. I spent many hours at Starbucks with a hot tea in one hand, and Girl with a Dragon Tattoo in the other. I could tell Peru would be a challenge for my bank account as the crafts here are gorgeous. I spent a day with a friend from Belize and Guatemala, remember crazy Eddie? Yup, we reunited and watched a couple of movies. Up in the Air may not have been the best choice for a solo traveler...

I was a little bit stressed in Lima as there was a land transportation strike in the works, and it was fairly unpredictable when it would end. I had two days to wait until I would have to find an alternative route to Cusco for my Inca Trail Trek-- a plane. Well I'm glad I waited it out because I got on a 24-hour bus to Cusco on the 23rd, just in time to acclimatize before heading into the mountains.

24-hour bus ride. Need I say more? Was delayed because in several areas, half the road had fallen into a raging river. And at one point, the entire road had fallen into the river. Oy vey, Peru has some repair work to do.

Cusco-- Beautiful. Seriously. Most beautiful city I've been in on my entire trip. Winding alleyways whose sides are still made of ancient Inca walls (the stonework really is impressive). Tons of gorgeous crafts everywhere you turn. Cathedrals that caused my jaw to drop. Great landscaping. Mountains (THE ANDES!!!) Hills. Whitewashed walls. Alpacas (so cute, why aren't there more in the world?) Colored, ancient doorways. Cobblestone streets. Just exceedingly charming. Really cold though. And my hostel was on a hill, so I got a fair amount of exercise every day climbing it 3 or 4 times.

I was totally ready to stay in Cusco for a month, working at a hostel. I was slightly worried about getting antsy, as I was so so ready to leave Antigua after only two weeks. And I was also worried about time slipping away without my doing enough with it, you know? It would be easy to work in the hostel and stay there too much of the time. But the city has so many alleyways to explore, and its access to the surrounding mountains is excellent, so I was determined to settle myself into a steady, healthy routine of walking, exploring, reading, practicing Spanish, etc.

So. Day before my departure on the ultimate adventure, the Inca Trail. I meet my guide, the other two couples I will be hiking with (of course, 5th wheel), and pay up. I am all set to wake up at 5 the next morning and head into the Andes. I have gotten over the flu just in the knick of time, I have bought a hat to hopefully combat the unexpected cold, and I am so ready to sink into bed early in preparation. When I hear the news trickling through the hostel. There's been floods, maybe landslides, treks are cancelled, Machu Picchu is closed. Well, everything was hearsay, so I call up my trekking agency who gives me the runaround. Saying things about alternative treks. But I am not paying all that money for not-the-Inca-Trail. So I show up the next morning and tell them that, and you know the rest of that story.

What actually happened up in those mountains? Lots of rain led to lots of flooding and landslides. A few people died in said landslides (can you imagine sleeping in your tent, and having it just be swept off the mountain?!) Most tourists were stuck in Aguas Callientes, the town right by Machu Picchu where the train usually would take them back to Cusco. But the tracks had been badly derailed due to said flooding and landslides, so 2000 or so were stuck up there. I would have LOVED to be one of those people! What a story! There was free food and water, and then they got evacuated by helicoptor. What a great bonding experience, and what an unexpected and dramatic ending to your trek! Don't get me wrong, I feel for those who were injured, and especially for those who met their ends on that trek. That is certainly horrifying. I am not making light of this situation. But it would be a great story to be one of the last people to see the ruins before they were shut down. It is my expectation that they will be shut down for quite some time, there hasn't been serious damage done to the ruins themselves, but the transportation there is in a bad way. As I said before, Peru has a lot of repairing to work on in the near future.

Now this was not all clear-cut in Cusco. The communication therein could have been vastly improved. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, it was exceedingly frustrating. You know my story there. I eventually got my money back except for the deposit. Ah well. And after a brief bout of frustration with my circumstances, I did pick myself up and say What next? Because I am in South America, after all, and there are plenty of other things to see and do.

I spent a day wandering the town, met up with a friend. San Pedro market-- GREAT produce market! Juiced it up, of course. Climbed the mountain just outside of Cusco to the giant Jesus on top. Great view. Unbelievable sunset. So sad I didn't bring my camera. At this point I was thinking i could climb up any number of following days with said camera. Cusco. Sooooo beautiful.

That night I got to thinking, with a couple of new Australian friends. Redid some math, investigated some plane tickets online, and I came to the conclusion that the best use of my time and money would be to continue on through Bolivia and Argentina before returning home in mid-March. New game plan, and GO!

The next day Emma (Australian) and I headed out into the Sacred Valley. We saw firsthand some of the flooding (it really is surprising how little international attention this whole situation has been given-- I understand that it pales in comparison with Haiti, but there is a national crisis going on here). The Sacred Valley was gorgeous. A patchwork of different vibrant shades of green on the rolling valley floor, with snow-capped Andean mountains in the background. Lots of sheep, wildflowers, traditionally-dressed women. Blue skies with cumulus clouds. You'd never know it was the rainy season. We also saw a super-charming town, Ollentaytambo (or something...). The town is walled throughout, with so many growing things crawling all over them. We climbed up to some ruins on the mountain and overlooked the valley and the towering Andes. I had some of those moments. You know, the ones when I can't believe I'm really here? And I realize how lucky I am? And so grateful I kept going? I can't imagine a time of turning back, it would be ludicrous to give this all up. We sat high up on the mountain, legs dangling over the edge of an ancient Incan wall, and watched the evacuation helicoptors pass back and forth through the valley, still transporting tourists out of Aguas Callientes 4 days after the big collapses happened.

And that night we got on a bus heading, eventually, for Cabanaconde. In Colca Canyon. A huge canyon, more impressive than the Grand one. A town lacking internet, which partly excuses my lack of updates the past few days. And I will tell you all about those adventures in a couple of days. Tomorrow I am off to find where the sun was created, in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I'll be back the following day. So until then...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fighting a foul disposition

Here I am in Cusco, Peru, dreams of the Inca Trail dashed to smithereens.

It's the rainy season here in the Andes, and there has been a lot of flooding, a lot of landslides, even a couple of deaths up on the trail. Due to all this, the Inca Trail has been shut down by the government early (it is usually shut down for trail maintenance in February). So instead of striking out into the Andes at 5 this morning, I get to spend all day trying to convince my trekking company to give me my money back. They of course have been giving me a massive run around.

Hostel friends said ¨What's wrong with you, whip out your self-righteous American within! Start pointing your American finger!¨

You guys, if you couldn't tell, that is so not my style. Getting people to give me my money back is NOT my strong suit.

I still can't believe I am not doing this trek. I planned this trip for many months before I departed, and do you know the image that floated above my head when I dreamed of this journey? None other than the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu. From all of the other countries, all of the other experiences, all of the other possibilities, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu emerged as the ultimate dream, the ultimate experience. The thing I was looking forward to most. Guuuuuuuuh.

Let me get my money back, and let me wake up tomorrow looking forward to my new game plan.

Monday, January 25, 2010

If you don't hear from me til Saturday...

It's because I am dying slowly in the Andes on the Inca Trail. If
sheer exhaustion doesn't do me in, the cold will. Machu Picchu here I

Sent from my iPhone

Cusco, Peru. Beautiful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book trade score: David Sedaris

Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

It has been 3 months since I've been out, and this one's certainly got month 2 beat.

-first time sailing
-first time being sea sick
-swimming with jellyfish
-fresh fish
-pirate country
-waking up and diving into the Caribbean
-diving into the Caribbean any old time I felt like it
-skinny dipping
-dance parties with Colombianos
-New Year!
-many attempts at salsa
-coffee with cinnamon
-being an illegal alien
-conquering DAS (with too much money)
-overwhelmingly kind Colombianos helping me out for no reason at all
-robbed: once
-robbing foiled: once
-mugged: once
-mugging foiled: once
-cable cars: 2
-boys: 3 (this does not mean what you may be thinking)
-books read: 4 1/2
-new friends: countless
-stranded due to bus strike
-business class for the first time! wearing the same shorts and shirt for the 3rd day in a row, awesome.
-so much local street food
-frutas!!! everywhere!!!
-lots of country trekking
-early mornings
-GREAT pizza
-bumpiest road EVER
-surviving Colombia mostly intact
-cautionary tales
-Colombiano art
-F.A. Cano
-little old Colombiana woman totally freaking me out in the dark on a mountain and then blessing me
-hitting my stride as a solo traveler
-modes of transportation: bus, foot, horse, plane, taxi, swimming, sailboat, launch, dinghy, motorcycle, metro, cable car
-being called a diamond. Really genuinely.
-Yellow Spectral Warrior
-Colombian coffee
-movies in a theater: 2! (Sherlock Holmes and Up in the Air)
-constantly dirty feet
-sick from food or water: I've avoided it thus far, knock on wood!
-flu: once (currently)
-overnight buses

It's been a fantastic month. So much of what my journey is has been completely unexpected. I imagined a lot. I never imagined this. Everything changed once Sarah left, and it is exhilirating to head into each new day, not knowing where I may be when the night arrives, literally or figuratively. I try to roll with the punches and accept the good that comes my way. I stay true to myself, and only myself. Sometimes I feel like I have a lot of strings pulling me, nudging me; Mormon strings, family strings, backpacker strings, career strings, well-meaning strings, etc. And I may follow one or two or five. But I ultimately follow my own path, and it's been a really exciting, empowering one. I try almost anything once and say yes more often than no. It's strange to live day to day without bouncing everything that happens to me off of a close friend, or at least someone I've known more than a week. Locals, taxi drivers, bartenders, travelers, receptionists, strangers, frequently tell me how strange it is that I am traveling alone, or saying how adventurous or brave I am. I smile and accept the compliments. I am someone right now that I never saw myself being. It has been a complete surprise. I think that's pretty amazing, how quickly it happened, and hell, when does this happen? I feel like such identity changes are usually slow evolutions, fairly predictable. But this solo world traveler, this empowered, independent woman, suddenly appeared. Was forced upon me, really.

In Antigua one morning, I was listening to Ragtime. There's a lyric, sung by Mother, that talks about women who are ''unafraid to be strong''. And it struck me as false; aren't we always afraid to be strong (or should be), because being strong implies that we are experiencing something exceedingly unpleasant or challenging. Something which necessitates a bold counter-action to maintain some balance, to maintain forward motion. Before we get to an experience which necessitates ''being strong'' we are all talk; once it gets to that painful challenge, the one which requires the bold counter-action, all we can feel is pain. It's the rule of opposites, you can't feel strong without feeling weak. You can't feel brave without feeling afraid. And once we are experiencing a challenge, how can we not be afraid?

I am not completely on the other side yet, but I do feel that in this last month I have emerged from something. I've moved ahead, I've achieved forward motion, I am finally starting to hit my stride as a solo traveler. This is shot to hell sometimes; when I thought for 5 minutes the other day that I had made some horrible mistake and missed my flight to Lima, tears were brimming and panic had started rolling by the time I got to the desk of the check-in attendant. And I still feel ridiculously exposed when I walk in a city by myself with a bag. But as a whole, I feel the exhileration of someone new, someone different. Someone I came to Latin America to find, even though I didn't know who or what I was looking for when I came.

Alright, no worries, I still have a healthy sense of my flaws and areas of improvement. Musn't forget those.

And now that the land transportation strike has ended, I'm off to get a 22-hour bus ride ticket to Cusco. Inca Trail, here I come to get my ass kicked!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I saw a LOT of these. Can't believe the colors are still on this one from thousands of years ago.

Weirdest fruit I've ever enjoyed. It seriously looks like it came from outer space.

This was also there. Yum.

Best produce market so far: San Agustin. Heaven.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yellow Spectral Warrior

Imagine Bobblehead Laura. Imagine a two year old shaking Bobblehead Laura. For 6 hours. The bus ride from Popayan to San Agustin is notoriously rough, and that´s what it was like, no exaggeration. It is the bumpiest ride I have ever experienced. And I get to do it again in about 3 hours. I may not be sane when we finally roll into Cali.

After that lovely ride, I found myself at one of my favorite hostels I´ve experienced so far, La Casa de Francois. San Agustin is known for the hundreds of ancient statues sprinkled across its hills. They date back to anywhere from 3000 BC to 1000 AD, and are a good excuse to go horseback riding or trekking across more idyllic countryside. And then once you´ve seen enough statues, the peaceful nature of the hostel will keep you planted in San Agustin for a couple more days.

The night of my arrival, a great group of people were already gathered in the hostel on the hill, and I joined them for some really delicious pizza in town, followed by a fueled night of playing 'Shithead'. The pizzaria in town, owned by an ex-pat German, was so tasty, and included some of the best local music I´ve heard on my trip. I was so happy. The group consisted of myself, 4 Londoners, and a Swiss. I´m just going to leave it at This was a great group of people and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I really wish all of them could have stayed longer, but they´d been in San Agustin for 5 days already.

This traveling alone thing has been great for practicing my social skills. I mean, I meet so many new people everyday, and if I don´t become friends with them quickly, either they or I will have left for the next destination. It´s also been really interesting to see who I connect with, or who becomes an unexpected friend. Even though I´m from NYC, a city teeming, overflowing with people, I meet far more people on the road than I do in my 'normal' life. And I find myself in situations, in the company of people, that I never would at home. I feel like I could travel Europe next year and have places to stay all along the way.

The hostel here is set in a farm on a hill high above the town. I spent plenty of time in a hammock overlooking the valley, reading my book. I also went horseback riding for 5 hours, stopping along the way to learn about some statues. I was even the official interpreter! I went with a Swedish friend I had met in Salento, who had also ended up in San Agustin, by name of Martin. I knew more Spanish than him, so our guide was exceedingly patient, speaking quite slowly, so I could grasp the pertinent information and relay it on. It was good practice, and I´ve got to say I was pretty proud of myself.

Another day Martin and I set off for the Parque Archealogico, 3 km from town. We must have walked at least 12 km that day. Martin made an excellent travel companion, I am so glad he´s been around both in Salento and San Agustin-- very smart, great conversation, similar interests. I´ve been really lucky lately in the people I´ve met and spent time with. I´m not going to elaborate here, but I´ve had some really fantastic moments with people in the last week. Moments I will cherish and remember. Again, I really think it´s the mountain thing. Hopefully I´ll meet up with several of them again down the road.

On our horseback riding day, Martin and I ended up in a small cafe where a woman offered to tell us our Mayan calendar horoscope, basically. I don´t really believe in such things, but it was cheap, and when else would I discover my Mayan horoscope? And she did end up telling me some things that I think are important to remember during the rest of my trip, and the rest of my life.

She deciphered my Mayan identity through my day of birth, February 13, 1984. I am a Yellow Spectral Warrior. There are countless things that I don´t remember, I have an awful memory for such things, but what she said really was quite beautiful. The most significant or important thing for me in life is intelligence. And I am a risk-taker, adventurous. I have the ability to be a great warrior, but I am a pacifist. I am proactive and strong. And journeys like this, being active out in nature, is and will be integral in my ability to fulfill my potential. I am like a phoenix, I regenerate throughout life, being able to take challenges and turn them into strengths. It was very flattering, and it was apparent to me that this girl really did believe in the Mayan calendar, and many Mayan traditions. As I was leaving, she looked me right in the eye and said ''It is good to be a warrior, yes?'' Yes. Yes it is.

The next few days will be spent in travel as I head back to Cali, catch a plane down to Lima, and eventually a 22 hour bus to Cusco. I am grateful I have a couple of good books to keep me company, and a bag full of fresh fruit from the mercado here. It was the best mercado I´ve been to yet! Fresh fruit and vegetables as far as the eye can see!

The last week or two in the mountains have been so wonderful. I´ve been so at peace, had such wonderful conversations, been surrounded by such beauty. I would happily return here.

But this warrior journies on.

Monday, January 18, 2010

so much Swedish in my life right now

I was so lucky to stumble across someone who had just finished this book so I could swap for it! After enjoying the Wallender series so much when BBC produced them, I was excited for some more Swedish mystery literature. And a page turner is such a blessing when you´re trying to forge through a book that hasn´t quite grabbed you... Unfortunately this book apparently has a cliffhanger ending, and what are the chances I find it´s sequel along the road? Oh well, it´s too good to stop now.


Alright, it´s been far too long since I posted. The problem is that I've been being too sociable, I can only write a big fat post when I am being solitary, you know?


After my unsavory experience in Bogota I was so ready for the peace and quiet of the mountains. Salento delivered, though I did unknowingly arrive at exactly the right time to join in with one of the biggest fiestas this tiny town has all year. It was their anniversary party and it was just about to kick off to a riotous beginning when I arrived Friday morning. It lasted through Monday night, and transformed the entire town. Salento is usually a sleepy, charming little town in the mountains of coffee country, the Zona Cafetera. It has one big main plaza, and a main street lined with restaurants and shops leading north from the plaza to a large hill, at the top of which is the ever-present mirador. That´s where the town parades to for their Santa Semana in April.

There´s one main hostel where most backpackers gather, if only momentarily, as in my experience it was almost always full, pretty disorganized, and difficult to get a bed at. Plantation House. I was lucky and curled up into a double bed almost immediately as my night bus had been less than restful. Despite the disorganization, it is such a lovely place. It´s surrounded by farms, has a stunning view of the valley, is far enough from the plaza that we weren´t bothered by the blasting music (three different genres simultaneously), but could walk to the plaza in a matter of minutes to join in with the huge Colombiano party. The whole place actually reminded me of my beloved Santa Elena in Costa Rica's coffee country. And so of course, I stayed longer than originally intended.

I think certain genres of destinations tend to attract a particular type of traveler. I always find exceptional company in the mountains, and they have been the easiest places for me to make friends. Needless to say, I found some really delightful company in Salento.

There really isn´t much to do in Salento. At all. Almost all the tourists eventually funnel into the Cocora Valley to do some trekking in the gorgeous countryside. And other than trekking, there is nothing to do. It was blissful.

My trip into the valley was both wonderful and disturbing. There is a trail through the valley for perhaps an hour, and then you enter a jungle. I loved the valley, it was the textbook description of lush with rumpled hills and mountains on both sides. The cutest, woolliest cows you can imagine were scattered throughout. Wax palms also sprinkle the hills, which seem somewhat out of place in this idyllic valley-- they shoot perfectly straight up into the air, they are so tall, and then bust into palm leaves at the top. They looked like Dr. Seuss trees. And clouds and mist were shrouding the tops of the mountains around me. The path across the valley floor has been carved out by the feet of cows, horses, and people for generations, and in places the sides of it came up to my eyes. A perfect place to find a quiet spot and settle into my book for an hour or so. So I slipped under the barbed wire and climbed a steep hill so that, over the crest, no one would be able to spot me. I was hidden away, in a pocket of this green, green mountain for a few hours.

After my mugging, I can´t deny that I haven´t had some residual irritating paranoia. The following is an excerpt of what I wrote to my therapist about this day--

''...and poor Colombia, I certainly don´t want to contribute to the negative opinion most Americans seem to have of it. Also, in the moment I acted and reacted well. It was only after that it really sank in how terrifying it was. I´ve never personally experienced something so violent. I couldn´t stop shaking for hours. And I find that I can´t stop thinking about it, even when I logically step back and see that no permanent damage was done, I reacted well even if not correctly, and hey, it makes a great story.

Not only can I not stop thinking about it, but I find myself flinching if someone touches me unexpectedly from behind. My heart immediately leaps unpleasantly. Yesterday I was walking down the street with a friend, and there was a guy leaning up against the wall of the street. As we passed, he raised his hand to scratch his nose or something, and I flinched. Supid things like this keep happening. It irritates me-- not only because I used to be so confident walking around Central America, but because I´m not sure if this experience really qualifies as a 'traumatic' experience, you know? FAR worse things happen to other people all the time. If the guy had knifed me, yes, that would qualify. But the fact is that I beat the bastard, and he did not hurt me permanently. Sure, soreness and bruising, it was kind of a lengthy struggle, but it could easily have been so much worse.
Today I went for a hike in the Cocora Valley, in the mountains of coffee country. It was beautiful. This valley could be the textbook description of lush. The rumpled hills radiate peace and contentment. It´s a holiday weekend so there were more people on the trail than I would have liked. I slipped under the barbed wire of the path to climb a steep hill where, just behind the crest I could sit, unseen by the other hikers below. And I couldn´t stop imagining how easily a man could slip up behind me and take advantage of me. I whipped my head around maybe 5 times just to make sure no one else was back there but cows. I know it´s my imagination getting the better of me, and I sat up there for at least a couple of hours, reading and thinking, just fine. But it bothers me that these are the thoughts that occur now.
I continued on the path eventually, into a cloud forest-jungle. I knew there was a cafe deep inside, my destination. A lot of other hikers turned back, and soon I was alone in the jungle. This is exactly what I used to relish. But after 15 minutes or so of hiking, I couldn´t stop thinking how vulnerable I was, how there could so easily be guerilla men in this jungle (and I know this is a possibility in Colombia, though, being practical, I don´t think I really needed to worry about that at this particular location), who could easily prey upon a lone female. Climbing over Indiana Jones- style bridges, I repeatedly tried to banish these thoughts, but my heart started racing for no reason. I could no longer tell the difference between irrational fear and legitimately good gut instinct. So I turned back, I erred on the side of caution, though I usually prefer the side of slight risk and adventure. I was approaching panic, and I was near tears. I hate that I am affected like this. I hate that I keep seeing a Colombian man loom up in my fears, someone who slips behind me with a knife, rough hands, arms stronger than mine, ready to jerk me backwards. I hate how powerless I felt, even though I beat him! I hate that instead of openly smiling at everyone, including men, that I come across, I can tell there´s a touch of fear in my eyes as I look ascance at the men behind my smile.
It wasn´t long ago that I was hiking alone in Costa Rica, feeling absolutely confident in my safety, and completely content in being by myself deep in jungle. Today was the perfect recipe for the peace I was seeking in the mountains after two days of being robbed in the city. The dark thoughts that I couldn´t stop in the jungle really disturb me. Now, sitting in an internet cafe in town, I feel almost silly writing this. But this darkness was all too real out there, when I felt the urge to write to you seeking any advice you may have for this kind of experience. And I do flinch. Often.
I´m sure these feelings will fade as time goes by. I´m sure the flinching will stop. The attack was only a couple of days ago.
I refuse for this experience to alter my behavior or plans too drastically. I have been traveling by myself for 2 months, confident and without incident. I completely, logically, expect this to continue to be possible and likely. How do I move past these dark thoughts and fears? How do I stop this ridiculous starting and flinching at every unexpected sound or touch?''

Since this experience I´ve spent almost all of my time in the company of other travelers, and it has helped quite a bit. These effects have faded a little, and I am sure they will continue to do so. I just wanted to record, here, what this entire experience has been like for me.

Colombianos are so eager to have more tourists in their country, I am asked how my experience has been every single day, multiple times. The safety here will continue to improve, I have no doubt. And though travelers swap cautionary tales frequently, I also come across plenty of travelers who have journeyed through this country with no unsavory incidents at all (well, when it comes to safety anyway). I would unquestionably still choose to travel through Colombia if I had the chance to do it all over again.

The rest of my time in Salento was whiled away with hammocks, books, meandering, coffee, Lucy's cheap and filling meals, lots of street food, and of course the fiesta. So many Colombianos came into town for this anniversary fiesta, and it was interesting to see Colombiano tourists alongside the gringos. Mountain Colombianos are different than city or coast Colombianos. They are no less kind, but they are more reserved. This is the area of the country where the farmers and cowboys wear the poncho and cowboy hat that you´ve seen on the Colombian coffee cans, and apparently it´s as much of a novelty to Colombiano tourists as it is to gringo tourists, because they bought plenty.

Every night of the fiesta the plaza and Calle Real were packed. There was one spot you could stand in the plaza where your ears would be decimated by 3 different songs colliding. It was a real treat to be able to see this town transform from party central to sleepy little mountain town again.

And the street food! Arepas, arepas with cheese and honey, some wafers sandwiching arequippe, coconut, cheese, and jam, strawberries with cream, pizza, roast corn, platanos, patacones, coffee, tons of fresh fruit, juice, and a lot of meat. There were even some roasted whole pigs. GROSS. But all the vegetarian options were delicious, if overwhelmingly fried.

The 360 degree view of the valleys and mountains surrounding Salento is breathtaking. Unreal. I cannot believe I got to be there. Definitely my favorite spot in Colombia.

In the end I absolutely did not want to leave Salento. Seriously. After 5 days. The morning I got on the super long bus ride to Popayan I was pretty unhappy, and didn´t cheer up really until I got to San Agustin and the great crowd of people I met here, perched above some beautiful country.

But that is a story for a different post.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Wax palms

My view 360 degrees.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Jugo de mora!

A life lived in fear is a life half lived

I have really debated writing this post, because I don´t want anyone to freak out. But I think it´s important to be honest about my travels, and the realities therein.

Today I was sort of attacked and robbed. I am totally ok! I was really lucky, these guys apparently were not willing to hurt anyone.

Here´s the story. I met this lovely girl at the hostel, Marianne. This morning we went by the bus terminal to buy some tickets to our respective next destinations. We went to Museo de Arte Moderno, which was the most disappointing museum I´ve ever been to. We wandered around for a bit looking for a good place for lunch, which we found. A really delightful pizza place called MonaPizza, in a lovely neighborhood. I had jugo de Mora which was, as always, delicious. Next on our itinerary was Monserrate, a church on the top of a mountain which is supposed to give you a great view of Bogota. Well, the cable cars at the foot of the mountain don´t look far on the map, so we figure we´ll just walk there rather than pay a taxi. We were walking through a neighborhood which I honestly did not feel the least sketchy about. There were kids playing in the street, a family washing their car. There were people around, you know? I hear footsteps running up behind me and still, I think nothing of it. My hackles are not raised. But suddenly there´s 3 guys, maybe 19 or 20 years old, yanking off our backpacks. Marianne did the smart and correct thing, and just gave them her backpack. Well, my backpack has one of those buckles that you buckle across your chest. I always assumed they were to help relieve the strain from your shoulders, but it turns out they´re pretty good anti-theft devices as well.

I was completely stupid. Even though there was that buckle thing going on, I was completely stubborn and could feel myself refusing to give in to this situation. I mean, incidents like this happen quickly. There isn´t so much a thought process happening as a series of instincts firing. Retrospectively, I can identify that my instincts didn´t see these guys waving weapons, so if they weren´t even using them to scare me into giving in I didn´t think they would use them on me. Also, there were so many people around, surely if I start screaming someone will come to my rescue. So I screamed and screamed and screamed. I let this guy yank me off balance so I was on the ground, dead weight being the most difficult to move. It was also a passive way to fight back, as obviously aggressively fighting back is the absolute stupidest thing I could do. My buckle finally broke. I kept screaming and screaming. It felt like a long time to struggle. Nobody came to my rescue. But he did finally give up and run off.

I am relieved I still have my camera, my glasses and contacts, and my iPhone. I am concerned I behaved so stupidly and didn´t just give the guy my bag. I may not be so lucky next time, you know?

I am more hurt by the fact that everyone on the street just watched that robbery happen, and didn´t even approach us afterward to see if we were ok, than by these guys actually robbing us. Colombianos are the nicest collective group of people I´ve ever met. Their reputation preceded them, and I´ve traveled through a bunch of countries now which also had wonderfully nice people, but the Colombianos exceeded expectation. They not only give you a direction, they ask about where you are going, why you are going, what you should do when you get there. When they see you struggling with the language they step right up and translate for you. If they´ve just met you, they hug and kiss you when you leave like you´ve been friends for three years. When they greet you in a cafe, they really seem to mean it. The warmth radiates from their eyes and smiles. They are SO HAPPY to have tourists coming through the country. I don´t know how or why this society has evolved such a lovely people, but the rest of the world could learn from them. They go above and beyond regularly, and with apparent pleasure. My instincts had a lot of faith in those Colombianos on that street.

I guess the idea is to just give in. I don´t know. I guess they had their reasons.

I flagged down the next taxi that passed and got the hell out of there. I`ll be taking more taxis from now on, I guess. And leaving my camera in a locker at my hostel. So long resolution to take more pictures.

Whatever prayers you all are saying for me are working, I guess. I am none the worse for wear. Just shaken up.

Monserrate was a little overshadowed by the experience.

When we got back to the hostel, I headed down the street to that cafe I enjoyed so much yesterday. Cafes are some of my favorite places in the world. They have a very soothing, comforting, calming effect on me, so I sat down with some hot chocolate and a book. 20 minutes in, I felt a warm hand on my arm. The woman who had just sat down next to me wanted to know if she should order downstairs, at the counter, or upstairs where we were. When she realizes I don´t speak much Spanish she seems delighted to talk in English. She seems delighted to be talking with me period. I give her what information I know, and then her companion goes down to order. She is astonished that I am traveling alone, and continues to ask about my travels, where I´ve been, what I think of Bogota, what had I expected of it and how did it live up to those expectations? Her companion presently returns with the bad news that this cafe does not, in fact, serve coffee. Well, clearly she must go elsewhere because coffee is the only thing to have, but she immediately turns to me while opening up her purse, exclaiming that I must have her phone number so I can call her if I need anything. I had been speaking with this woman for only a few minutes, and here she is offering herself and anything she can do for me. And it is overwhelming how genuine the offer is. Her warmth and kindness almost brought me to tears.

That robbery was obviously a very frightening, unpleasant experience for me. But it´s important not to judge an entire country, an entire society, on the actions of the minority. The reality has certainly set in at this point the risk I take as I travel, if I hadn´t quite realized it before. But it´s also plain to me how much this traveling has to offer as well. When do the cons outweigh the pros? When does the risk become too great? The fact is, yes, something worse could have happened today. Something worse could have happened a month ago. It could happen a month from now. But I don´t know. Nobody knows. All I can do is learn from my experience, and be ever yet more wary.

I am sorry, I know it must be worse to be reading this from afar, imagining awful things lurking around every corner from me. All I can say is I am vigilant. I am careful. I am confident that even if I am robbed of every possession, I will be safe. I would not be here if I weren´t confident in that. I´m not that stupid.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

one of life's lessons

I am painfully aware of how outrageously this blog could benefit from pictures.

I am also ashamed by how few pictures I am taking.

I am also cringing at how all those pictures don't have people in them.

I am a number one advocate of people in pictures. People in pictures make them VASTLY more interesting and enjoyable to look at years later. Who wants to look at landscapes 5 years down the road? Unfortunately, a lot of my time on this trip has been exploring and viewing landscapes. And a lot of my time has been traveling alone, when I would have to do that awkward arms-length picture of myself thing. And alright, I'll be honest, I don't really like how I look right now.

And I love my SLR (I LOVE my SLR!) but it is a huge pain to pull out of my backpack and it makes me paranoid having that nice-looking camera out.

But today I had my camera out. And today my wonderful camera, with a newly-filled memory card, was STOLEN!

The day started with my arrival via bus into Bogota, Colombia's capital city, at 5 in the morning. I finally got to a hostel and slept on the couch for a few hours before arising and heading out to the streets which were surprisingly charming. As always, I had no idea what to expect from this new place. But La Candelaria is the tourist center of the city, and apparently an artistic center? As almost every building is decorated or brightly painted. There are some beautiful churches here, and the background of mountains is stunning.

After wandering around downtown for awhile I headed into another art museum, Donacion Botero. Filled with, you guessed it, more of Botero's fat people. I'm pretty tired of Botero, I like his statues more than his paintings, and I kind of feel like once I've seen 5 of them I've seen them all. But there were other works as well. The museum didn't have as good of a collection as Museo de Antioquia, but the building and space itself was really lovely. And it was free.

It had a couple of courtyards, and I was feeling very comfortable there. I usually do in art museums. I sat down on a bench in a sunny courtyard to read for a little bit with my camera on the left side of me, bag on the other. A man approached from the right and started asking me things in Spanish, something about coffee or lunch. As always I didn't get it the first or second time, so I was excusing myself in Spanish for my lack of Spanish skills when I out of nowhere got a funny feeling, looked to my left to discover my camera had disappeared, looked up to see a retreating back of a man a few yards away en route to the street exit. I yelled "Oy!", at which the man turned around with my camera in his hands. He tried to make some excuse, which I didn't understand, I merely gave him a death glare as I took my camera back. He quickly turned and exited while I turned to the first man with the same death glare. He tried to act like he wasn't connected with the stealing man, but of course he was and I said a really nasty "Ciao." I was really frustrated that I couldn't come up with the Spanish to alert the guards to these men's behavior before they had booked it to the street. But at least I got my camera back!

I don't know where my lightening-quick instinct came from, but I am so thankful for it. Even though I got my camera back I sat there, slack-jawed, for a good 5 minutes afterward. I know it was nothing personal, but it's hard not to take it that way when I know they were looking at me, planning how to rob me, before any of this happened. I think I look like a very nice person. A nice, considerate, intelligent person. It disgusts me that I can be someone's target. I know, maybe I can't imagine the hardship these two men go through every day. But to be honest, their clothing was nice enough. It didn't look like they were malnourished in any way.

I still can't believe I was robbed today. I knew it would happen. I came on this trip absolutely knowing I would be robbed at some point. But I've gotten a little too comfortable. I never would have left my camera sitting out like that when I arrived in Central America. Well, I've learned my lesson now, no worse for wear.

They would not have robbed me today if I wasn't alone.

After the museum I did one of my favorite things ever. I went to a cafe. Cafe Puerto Falsa to be exact, recommended by a friend. I had something new and local, agua de panela con queso. Agua de panela is a sweet hot drink, and it was definitely tasty. I don't know why it's served with queso on the side, but it was good queso, and good bread. Good lunch over all.

I then headed up to Museo del Oro, or Museum of Gold. I have no real interest in gold, but this museum comes HIGHLY recommended by my guide book and a couple of friends. And it was only $1.50. So in I go and I'm glad I did. It was essentially a museum of artifacts from the indigenous people of Latin America. A lot of it, obviously, was made with precious metal. But there was also pottery and carvings, etc. Super interesting, though too many people.

Tomorrow: Museo de Arte Moderno, Montserrate, and then maybe on to Salento already? I'm not feeling much like a city mouse lately, I think I'm ready to be in some mountains...

From DAS to art to juice in one post

As it turned out, I was in big passport trouble. I was an illegal alien, and DAS did not care that everyone told me it would be fine to go on to Medellin. Boy have I learned my lesson.

On Monday Ana and I went to DAS first thing, only to discover I had to return the next day with a filled out form, 5 pictures of myself, and photocopies of everything. So we ran our errands and continued on to Museo de Antioquia, an art museum. The square outside of it is filled with Botero statues. You know Botero? He's the artist that depicts everyone and everything as fat. Roundingly plump if you will. It's a lovely plaza, and a great place to people watch. We also picked up some local pastry. The art museum was fantastic. There was a wonderful exhibit of F.A. Cano, Colombia's most important artist. He worked at the turn of the century through the 20's I believe. He covered quite a few subjects. I tried looking for my favorite pictures (I had many) online, but no luck. There were a few other Colombian artists I really enjoyed as well, whom I'd never heard of before of course. Great museum experience. It was also great to be there with Ana who was an art major at university, so she could fill me in on a bit of Colombian art history. Luis Caballero, Debora Arango (first Colombian female to paint female nudes, got excommunicated for it).

We took the extremely clean and smooth metro back to the El Poblado neighborhood and met up with David to grab dinner. Then we met some Argentinian friends of his for drinks. I didn't know what they were saying most of the night, but I had a great time anyway.

The next morning was the day of DAS. Ana and I got there at 7. Ana is a complete saint. I don't know what I would have done without her help. She waited with me at DAS the entire day, went back and forth to the bank and to get yet more fotocopias, translated everything for me, and basically plead my case for me. Seriously. SAINT MATERIAL. It was an extremely frustrating day of hours of waiting, only to be told it would be a 3 day process and that there was no getting out of hundreds of dollars of fees. I was LIVID with Dennis. I recall the exact conversation when he said "We should really head over to Caperganau to get this passport business taken care of... oh naw, let's go to land and have a drink instead." I pulled out the tears, and maybe they helped because we miraculously got taken care of by the end of the day. Though I still had to pay $150 in fees. Freaking expensive sailing trip.

I was exhausted, but spent that evening running a couple errands and catching up with the internet.

I hope that when I think of Medellin, I don't recall DAS, I recall how the city looked this day from the metro at sunset. The metro runs above ground here, which is gorgeous. So much better than underground. You speed smoothly through the tops of buildings, spires of cathedrals periodically rising above the rest. Sunset never fails to amaze me, how it can transform any almost any scene into something beautifully different.

The next day I went to the Museo de Arte Moderno, but it was closed. Ah, let me pause and point out how much art is happening in my life right now! Remember Central America? Remember how in that entire land mass I didn't visit one art museum, go to one play, or do anything related to the arts at all? That's because there isn't really anything related to the arts. Art is really a luxury, one that Central America has, so far, not been able to afford. There was occasionally some traditional dancing, but nothing that displayed a real creative spark. It's been strange because so much of my previous travel experience has centered around art. Museums, theatre, street performances, architecture, what have you. Central America was all about natural beauty rather than human achievement. And I didn't realize quite how much I missed art until I stepped into that Plaza filled with Botero. In fact, this entire city really has its act together, and statuary/monuments are everywhere. Walking through that museum was like walking through a church. It was so refreshing to shuffle around the hushed halls, focusing on depictions of the past, evocative slashes of paint, beautiful testaments to the human body. Connection achieved without words or sound or a similar language.

Despite how much I love, and will always love, art museums, I do think they are somewhat bizarre. They will always be a comfort zone for me, BUT, doesn't it seem odd to contain these vivid, evocative, vessels of human communication in rectangles and hang them, evenly spaced, on a giant, sterile, white wall? Where people shuffle from one completely different work to the next in the space of seconds? Shouldn't these be out amongst the people rather than housed in a big warehouse of a building? I know, I know, when we set them apart like this they cause us to regard them more significantly, consider them a bit more. There is plenty of art out amongst the people, and our eyes commonly skip right over them on their way to the next street sign.

I am well aware I am contradicting myself, comparing an art museum to a church, a sacred space for me, dedicated to important things, and then tearing the use of them down. It's just interesting for me to think about.

I decided to take the metro line to the end and hop on a cable car. All within the price of one metro ticket. :) As I mentioned earlier, Medellin is in a valley, surrounded by steep hills, or shall we say mountains, on all sides. Little adobe houses climb all sides of the valley, and the metro system turns into a cable car system at the end to climb the slopes. So into a cable car I go, and I feel like I am in Willy Wonka's glass elevator. Except I obviously can't go any direction I would like, I can only go forwards and back. And instead of floating over what... London? I am floating over the slums of Medellin. But I've got to say, I've seen worse slums. These slums looked pretty clean and cheerful, comparatively.

Colombia's street food is fantastic. Unhealthy for the most part, with plenty of fried foods and pastries, but tasty tasty tasty. I try something new every day. Favorite thing so far: THE JUICE. JUGO! There are fruit stands everywhere ready to blend you up fresh juice at a moment's notice. And there are so many fruits here I have never heard of or seen before, it's kind of exciting to order a juice of something I have no idea if I'll like or not. The BEST when you're hot and thirsty. I will have juice every day while I am here and I will quickly grow used to it. After the barren lands of Central America where all the produce was shipped out, it is a delight to see a fruit stand with freshly sliced mango around every corner.

Speaking of food, why do I always feel absurdly happy and comfortable in a supermarket? Without fail, I'll run in to grab some aguacate for dinner or some bananas and bread for lunch, and I'll spend an hour wandering around, comparing all the different local arepas or candy or produce. And I'll end up happy no matter in what mood I came in. I find supermercados especially helpful when I'm feeling lonely and sad. This has got to be connected to my emotional eating challenges. The other day I was writing to a friend who just moved to NYC, and who is also a little lonely and sad. And my advice (other than to GET OUT and go see a free play or something), was first to go to the grocery store. What kind of advice is this? But seriously, to go and fill her pantry with good, delicious, wholesome food. Whole Foods is one of my happy places in NYC. I don't know why. But I love all the good choices housed there. I know that as a company they are not perfect, but they sure are trying a lot harder than a lot of other companies to do right by the environment and the human body. I love food. That's all there is to it. I admit it. But I love good food, not crap. Maybe it has something to do with homemaking/nesting. Creating a place for myself with my food. Claiming to the world, "this place is mine, makings for my dinner are here." Even if that place is just my backpack.

Good times at Donacion Botero art museum and Museo del Oro

And this guy

And this... (look at his hands all curled up around his chin, mad creepy!)

Spent the day looking at things like this...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

All at sea VI

The 1st of January was frustrating.

I personal fault of mine is my lack of patience and sympathy with people who are hung over. I just think it´s pretty easily avoidable, and I resent when it impedes on my life.

The Plan was to sail to Turbo the evening of the 1st. With my desire to get through Colombia within 2 weeks, cutting out the sail to Cartagena, and then the loooong drive to Medellin, would be prudent for me. I was also eager to avoid another long sail. Turbo is south of Sapzurro, a 10 hour sail, and a 9 hour bus ride from Medellin, my first planned stop in Colombia. This was also good for Joe as he is motorcycling to Tierro del Fuego before it gets too cold to visit. And poor Lani gets outvoted but is so easy-going she seems ok with things.

I am ready to be off this boat. I have been for a couple days, to be honest. I am getting antsy about moving on, not wanting to waste my precious few Colombia days in a place I am ready to be gone from. I awake on the 1st, get Dennis moving, and promise to have the boat cleaned up and ready to sail if he gets supplies so we can sail at 5 for Turbo.

Something about living on a boat is that it´s easy to get stranded. If you don´t have the dinghy because somebody else has it, you´re stuck. Whether it be on the boat or on the land. Yes, I could swim from one to the other, and I did. But then you´re just you, in a bathing suit, and nothing else. So that´s just not very useful. This particular morning I was stranded on land with Lani. We did eventually hop on a launch that was kind enough to drop us off at The Fantasy though.

So I take it upon myself to get the crew going, and the ship cleaned and ready for sail. I´ll be damned if our sail is delayed because of something I had the power to change. Joe goes to land with the dinghy on captain´s request. So the girls get the ship ready, and then we wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. No word. For hours. I am getting increasingly more irritated with Dennis, and increasingly more worried that we won´t set sail that night.

Joe returns with empanadas! And the news that the captain has been drinking all day, but is still intending to sail! But he irrationally needs the money for the trip to give to Jack before we sail, so Joe heads back to land that evening, and returns with the news that Dennis is completely passed out. OF COURSE. I am livid. And so I go to bed.

There just isn´t any way that you can hurry Dennis along if he doesn´t want to be hurried, you know? So the next day we just continue to wait around. For hours and hours and hours. The other three went to land in the morning to get provisions for breakfast, but I was in no mood to be in Sapzurro, so I just stayed on the boat. They returned with the news that Dennis was still knocked out. He eventually showed up, and we eventually did set sail that night. FINALLY.

I slept for the sail again.

The next morning we got to Turbo, and I got the hell off that blasted boat! A couple of Colombianos, David and Ana, were headed to Medellin, so I tagged along. Dennis, one of his duties as captain, is to get passports stamped in and out. But he assures us that since it´s Sunday and the tiny Turbo office is bound to be closed, I can go along to Medellin and get stamped in there. I ask him, and other Colombianos several times, if they are POSITIVE this is alright. And they insist yes, since Medellin is the first place I could possibly get stamped in, it is no problem.

Turbo is a shithole and we get in and out as quickly as possible.

David and Ana are SO NICE. Like, unbelievably, exceedingly, mind-blowingly nice. We all share lunch and snacks and they take care of me completely. The ride to Medellin is through mountains and it is BEEEEEAAUTIFUL. I am SO HAPPY to see mountains again! I love the beach and the ocean, but I can certainly get enough of it. And I really quickly grow tired of the beach bums that gravitate to it. It is not my preferred way of life.

There is a marked military presence along the road through the mountains. I ask why, and David says that it used to be an extremely dangerous road. 8 years ago Sapzurro was taken over by guerrillas, and you could not traverse this particular road safely. So now the military is there for our security. And times have sure changed in 8 years. Colombia is as safe as any other Latin American country, and Colombianos are so eager and excited to see tourists coming through. They are so eager for more. And there assuredly will be more, because it is beautiful here, the people are indescribably kind, generous, and open-hearted, and honestly, it has the least potential for culture shock from the states.

Medellin is not at all what I expected. It is huge, and the closest thing to the States I´ve encountered in my journeys thus far. Of course it has it's slums, it's dangerous parts, but it is also exceptionally clean and modern, with the smoothest metro system I've been on in years. It's cradled in the mountains, its adobe and brick houses literally overflowing, ascending the hills surrounding.

And so I am finally here. I have finally moved on. But Dennis's shifty ways continue to hover over me as I discover problems with my passport. I have turned into an illegal alien.

All at sea V

Sapzurro is tiny. It was also talked up as GORGEOUS and 'the best place in Colombia'. Well, it is beautiful. It´s nestled in a bay, cradled in the arms of jungle-covered mountains.

I AM DESPERATE FOR A SHOWER. It is the 30th of December and I haven´t showered since the 23rd. I´ve plunged into salty waters repeatedly, sweat a lot, and been through a rough sail. I have not changed my clothes once. I am gross.

This is first in mind as we head to the shore of Sapzurro and Dennis's new hostel. That shower was fantastic. It was, however, the only shower I had until I got to Medellin the night of the 3rd. And it was quickly obsolete as I would begin every day by diving into the ocean off the boat, and swim 2 or 3 times after that as the day heated up.

Sapzurro is a weird town. Tiny. Apparently everyone who lives there has money, but that doesn´t mean the amenities are greatly improved. It keeps being touted as the next great thing, how in 10 years it will have been taken over by the tourism industry. I think it was just over-hyped for me. Yes, it is beautiful, it is out there, away from it all. But it´s not the first place I´ve been that meet those criteria. For some reason dirty old men gravitate there on their sailboats. There was a flock of them, all friends with each other. I am SO SICK OF OLD MEN HITTING ON ME.

New Year´s Eve was crazy and FANTASTIC. Relaxed morning of swimming and mimosas with freshly squeezed orange juice. Evening of partying with Colombianos! We all danced like crazy. Then Kathryn, Lani, Joe and I ran off into the night to run naked into the Caribbean for the stroke of midnight. We bobbed in the waves talking about our previous year and our hopes for the next under the full moon. I love New Year´s, it is absolutely one of my favorite holidays. No guilt or negativity attached, which is common with several other beloved holidays of the year. It´s just one big party for everyone, when I reflect on the great things I´ve accomplished in the past year, how lucky I am, and look forward to the next. A fresh, new year. And I am so proud of this past year. One year previous, I had no clue I would be where I am. It was not a speck on my horizon. But I hatched the plan, executed it successfully, and despite everything, HERE I AM. Worlds away from my comfort zone and having eaten up so much experience on the way. I am doing something nobody else in my world has done. I am here, against all expectations, of others and myself. I am so pleased with the leaps and bounds I have made, that have been made for me, and resolved to continue this progression in my life as I continue my journey, and return home.

Something about being away always throws your life into perspective. This is nothing new. But a challenge I am having is that I have identified the changes I wish to make in my life (what I´m living right now isn´t exactly my life, this is something outside of my life), and I am eager to return to my life to make them. In fact, I can´t wait. But I know I still have more to learn here.

And then we continued dancing for hours afterward.

All at sea IV

I was the first one to awake on Boxing day. I was always the first one to wake up on the boat for some reason. I would step over bodies, making my way up to the deck and my favorite spot on the boat-- the hammock-- to watch the sun rise over the Caribbean. I loved that quiet moment. There were so many bodies on board, and several of them quite loud, that this time before they all woke up became my favorite time of day. Sometimes I would read, sometimes I would just drift through my thoughts. Kathryn was frequently the second one up and we dove into the sea, swam to the island, and walked around it to take in any and every aspect of it.

By the time we swam back to the boat everyone else was up and coffee was being served. Dennis immediately poured the last of a bottle of rum into his. This is when I realized that my captain would be in some state of perpetual intoxication at all times in our days to come. I do think he lays off a bit when he actually sails though.

Mode of operation on Dennis´s boat is pleasure. There´s swimming, snorkeling, eating, drinking, partying in any and every way. At around noon we set sail for a new island, one Dennis had never been to before.

This was my day of raging heartburn. My malaria medication is extremely acidic, so you´re not to take it before laying down. I´ve obeyed this so far, but on this morning I tried to swallow it without water to wash it down. Just too lazy to go get a glass of water. I will never do that again. I was uncomfortable for the entire day and the day following. Add this to 50+ raging sand fly bites and there´s a high level of physical discomfort. So I took it easy and stayed on board while the crew took the pathetic dinghy, which is practically like swimming, to shore. I watched this group of youths circled around Dennis and thought what a life he has! Always moving in the center of a different group of vibrant young people on their way from and to great adventures. Always making new young friends and setting himself up as the ringleader. He does his best to make this sailing trip a Great Adventure, and I´ve got to say that it is a very different experience than I believe a lot of people get when they pay for this particular trip. I´m very lucky in that respect. He´s always up for anything fun and is reckless enough to try anything.

The sunset this day was particularly beautiful. I witnessed it from the hammock, the water and sky was infused with vibrant orange. Schools of flying fish sped past the boat-- I can´t believe how far they go above the water!

The next day was finally the day for the previous crew of the boat to set off for Panama City. Dennis set out in the morning to take care of everyone´s passports at Porvenir, and the crew lazed about waiting for his return... for hours. This is typical with Dennis. He gets distracted. And you never know where he is or what he is doing. All you can do is wait for him to get back. I was actively refusing to feel anxious about all the time steadily marching by as we sat in the water. I think everyone had given up on his getting back in time for them to get to Panama that day when he finally arrived at 3ish. The crew was really reticent to depart, some of them had grown very attached to the boat. Kathryn, Lani, and Joe were definitely sad to see them go. But I really enjoy small groups of people as opposed to a giant party, so I was kind of glad.

Our plan was to sail to Sapzurro, just across the border into Colombia, where Dennis and his partner, Captain Jack, had set up a new hostel. This is where Kathryn was heading, as she will be working at the hostel for a couple of months at least. We would spend New Year's there, followed by our sail to Cartagena, Colombia.

Dennis decreed there was a storm and we should not set out til morning. I never saw the storm, but as there was no rush to get to Sapzurro because of the imminent holiday I didn´t mind too much. Some friends arrived, and I´ve got to say that Dennis's friends are always an... interesting... group.

The next morning we set sail. And, dear readers, I loved being on a sailboat. But I do not love sailing. I don´t get motion sickness. Ever. But sailing is a completely different story. On a scale of calm sailing to rollicking sailing, 1-10, we were at 6 or 7 the first day. It was a 28 hour trip to Sapzurro, and I slept for the entire journey! I still can´t believe it. Granted, at the beginning I took one anti-seasickness pill, and those just knock you out. But it couldn´t have lasted for that long. I´ve never slept so much in my life. I just kept waking up, looking at the clock, and rolling over to doze and then sleep again. You see, the secret to avoiding or treating seasickness is to lie down. For some reason it helps a LOT. And the rocking of the boat eventually rocks you to sleep.

I don´t believe Dennis slept at all during the journey.

At this point, completing the journey to Cartagena, another 30 hour sail, does not sound in the least appealing.

All at sea III

Walking through this Kuna-filled island is surreal. It is the most legitimately indigenous place I have been. San Blas won´t be this way for long. In 5-10 years I think it will be completely different, completely touristy. So I feel so lucky to have been able to experience it before this explosion of gringos alters everything. Glen is particular friends with a Kuna, Hector, who lives on this island. Most backpackers don´t come here, so wandering through the sugarcane huts I don´t see any other gringos. The Kuna women are often gathered together, sewing Molas which they will either wear or sell, or beading bracelets to wear or sell. I love the beads, wrapped into patterns on their calves and forearms. They use very old Singer sewing machines, the kind you crank as you sew, or simply sew by hand. I walk through, greeting everyone with the typical 'Buenas', being answered in a chorus of 'Buenas' in return. Children are especially eager to be acknowledged.

I am thrilled to stumble upon a museum, run by a Kuna man. The sugar cane hut contains many carvings and paintings depicting the myths and legends of the Kuna people, in addition to countless branches, shells, animal skulls, knick-knacks. Lani and I listen, Lani translating his spanish for me because there is much that I still don´t pick up.

The Kuna are a matriarchal society. Their god is a Mother Nature or Mother Earth, essentially. She gave birth in the beginning of time to two sons and two daughters, who in turn spawned humanity. There are a few legends vaguely similar to Noah´s Ark and the Tower of Babel, there was a dark time when humanity was destroyed and then created again. Albinos are considered sacred. There is a legend of an eclipse, when sickness surged in the Kuna people. An Albino saved the day by shooting an arrow at the moon, fighting off the dragon that was eating it, and as the moon came back the sickness retreated. Whenever there is an eclipse now, only albinos are allowed out, and they continue to defend the people and the moon by shooting at it. The Kuna are a fiercely close group, in the 20's they went through their population, killing anyone of mixed race so that they would be a pure people. Everyone stays on the island where they are born, though men move in with their wives when they marry, so there may be a change of location at that time. In the 20's, I believe, the Panamanian government tried to destroy the culture, attacking and suppressing the Kuna. Apparently the US backed the Kuna up and saved the day. Now the San Blas islands are the realm of the Kuna, and only Kuna can live there.

We were there as the Kuna were preparing for their annual naming ceremony, when they name girls, 7 years of age, their special Kuna name. Kuna men don´t get this ceremony.

Joe finally found us, his motorcycle transported in a launch to Porvenir, apparently the first time a motorocyle had been on the island. We made dinner on Glen´s boat and fell asleep on the deck underneath the stars.

At this point the knot of stress and anxiety in my stomach about money had dissipated somewhat. I really didn´t like how expensive the sailing trip was. And the fact that all this uncertainty surrounded it. We had no clue where Dennis was, when or where he would pick us up, when exactly we would get to Cartagena. I was also worried about time as I need to be in Cusco on the 24th for the Inca Trail. But I needed to get to Colombia, so I was roped into this sailing trip no matter what, and all I could do was release my negative feelings to enjoy the moment. San Blas made that easier. It is many people´s picture of paradise, it is tranquil, it is fascinating. Being on a sailboat, bobbing out in the sea, disconnected from land and the rest of humanity, is pretty relaxing. I was really happy.

The 4 of us spent Christmas morning and afternoon on the beach of Porvenir. Beer o'clock arrived quite early for many, and the general atmosphere was easy and content. Our radio and phone calls to Dennis continued to no avail, though none of us were worried. We sent word with someone heading to Chichime that if they should see Dennis, to tell him we were waiting for him at Porvenir. And finally our boat sailed in.

Captain Dennis. Maybe 50 years old. Blonde, unkempt hair, scruffy chin, potbelly. The reference 'Captain Ron' seems to work for a lot of people. He is, essentially, an overgrown child. Though at times his intelligence definitely emerges, he could be a very smart man if he wasn´t drunk so much of the time and giving in to self-righteous or childish indulgences. He is unpredictable. He is loco. He says one thing today which very well may change by tomorrow morning. You can´t pin him down, and it´s difficult to get a straight answer out of him. I felt completely confident in his technical abilities as a captain. He is very perceptive of what other people feel towards him. For most of the trip I just accepted who he was and how he functioned. It makes life easier and more fun. But I did, in the end, become thoroughly frustrated with him. For most of the trip I recognized that ultimately he´s a good one, he´s got a good heart and really does try to do right by people. But sometimes his own indulgent tendencies overshadow this. He is a complete character. He´s had a girlfriend for a number of years, Negrita, who is half his age and pregnant with twins. He talks about her all the time. He loves to lecture.

I was happy to be on the boat, to be, seemingly, on my way. I am always happy to be on the move, to be forging ahead into new territory. This is one of my faults as a traveler, I have a difficult time enjoying where I am, thinking too much about where I need to go. This has only increased as my Inca Trail date draws ever closer. Things would definitely be different if I wasn´t roped into Cusco at a specific date.

As we sail through this world of blue, I can´t believe I could have missed this. It was another moment when I knew that any of those hardships were worth this moment, this experience. I can´t believe Sarah left and missed it. I can´t believe she´s missed a lot of things. I know she doesn´t know what she´s missing, but I do. And I can´t help but feel a little smug about it. My Christmas surpassed my wildest dreams, I was so, so happy with my life.

Chichime is paradisical. Perfect waters for swimming, perfect beaches, a couple of Kuna families who sell a few necessities. The crew Dennis had brought up from Colombia were waiting for us there. 3 Swedish boys, 2 Quebecoise girls, a Mexican guy, and an American guy. It was a very full boat for the few days before we dropped them off at Porvenir to continue on our way back to Colombia.

We made dinner of Wahu fish and pesto pasta, and everyone drank a lot. Lani´s bottle of rum was put on the table and disappeared within 20 minutes I believe. Everyone was merry, vibrant, happy. I sat with Kathryn, Joe, and Lani, and couldn´t believe how smashingly my Christmas had turned out.

And it finished with some skinny dipping into the clear, warm, night waters of the Caribbean.

Beautifully written companion to my Colombian coffee

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All at sea II

At my 3rd hostel in Panama City, I met

Lani. Australian. Glasses and curly hair. So easy going it´s ridiculous. Such a warm, open, friendly heart. Teaches English as a foreign language to immigrants coming to Australia. Loved her life, and cut right out at the pinnacle to travel for an indefinite time in Central and South America. Hoping to teach English here. Makes friends easier than almost anyone I know. No one can fail to respond to the openness and goodness that radiate from her. Apparently rolls the best joints ever.

We girls hit up the grocery store to stock up on necessities for the trip.

Headed out at 5 AM. The trip was gorgeous as the sun rose, but I couldn´t for the life of me keep my eyes open. I did however notice when the road turned into a river. Awesome. You have to take a 4x4 Jeep out there for a reason.

Carti is not, as I had expected, a town. It is merely a port (I think there is another Carti, on an island close by, which actually is a town). Our plans for reuniting with Joe were foiled as there wasn´t much of a way to contact him, nor a comfortable place to wait for him. The sand flies in Carti were outrageous.

Allow me to introduce you to the sand fly. Think of a mosquito. Then imagine something even worse. Something tiny, that travels and attacks in swarms. Something that actually draws blood and on which insect repellant doesn´t work. If you´ve magically predicted the presence of sand flies and kept your baby oil at hand, congratulations. (Baby oil makes your skin too slippery so they can´t get enough of a grip to bite). If not, be prepared for what, 50 bites? Probably more. And that insane itchiness lasts twice as long as a mosquito bite´s itchiness. And one sets off a horrible chain reaction to insanity. And they leave tiny scars.

I caught my first glimpse of the Kuna in Panama City. They immediately grabbed my eye as they look different. In Central America, the indigenous people tend to naturally evolve into each other in dress and general appearance. So everyone kind of blends together (this is not in any way meant as a racist statement, stop that thought right now). You can see how they´ve influenced each other over the years, you know? But the Kuna, abruptly, were different than anyone else I´d seen. In dress, bone structure and shape, behavior, certainly, as I learned, in customs and history. More of that later.

I, torturously, didn´t take any real pictures of them besides that one I nabbed on my iPhone. They charge by the dollar generally, or just don´t like it. But I wanted to take 100. So beautiful.

Carti is the gateway into the San Blas Islands, which have been given to the Kuna people. (I find it amazing that such a beautiful area, so ripe for tourism dollars, was given to an indigenous people previously disliked by the Panamanian government. My experience is that native people are generally given land that not many other people want...) There are over 400 islands, though not all of them are inhabited. Many are inhabited by one or two families in one or two huts. One of the perks in being on a private sailboat as that we got to go to islands many others don´t generally go. Imagine the perfect deserted island. That´s what every island looks like. White sands, achingly blue waters in a hundred shades, brilliant blue skies from horizon to horizon, palm trees.

After a couple hours of waiting around (I do, at this point, feel like this is one of the least touristically developed experiences or places I´ve been. I was right, and in for more of this feeling,) we finally hopped onto a launch (a motor boat driven by a Kuna man, Federico). And we sped off, Kathryn, Lani, and myself, into this world of water. This world of countless shades of blue, the distant land misting into a hazy green. The water was as placid as a lake. Yet again, I´ve never been anywhere like it. An inverted place where the ground is water, and instead of pockets of water you have pockets of land.

Our instructions, by the way, are extremely vague. We are supposed to get to Chichime, which, according to the Kuna, will take $90. No way. We opted for $5 to Porvenir where we would wait for Joe and then figure out how to get Dennis to come to us. So, things seem a little tenuous. But that doesn´t matter when you´re in such a place.

Porvenir is where the immigration office is, and where there is a small hotel and restaurant. Dennis has to come to the immigration office eventually (calls to him of course go unanswered), and the restaurant will keep us fed for as long as we wait. And the hotel has a lovely little beach, and delightful Kuna owners. Not a bad place to spend Christmas Eve. Though I can´t deny I was pretty frustrated with Dennis at this point. I figured I was paying so much for this cruise, he should be catering to me a lot more than he was. I was extremely stressed about money. That feeling tends to come and go in waves during my travels.

Kathryn recognizes a boat from when she was here before-- Glen´s sailboat. He is sailing his friend`s boat all the way up to Portland, Oregon (and looking for crew to join him!) He invites us for dinner on the boat, but beforehand we all go to Wichiwalla, the island where there is a town and little mercado shop, to look for ingredients. The Kuna live in sugarcane huts, so that´s what this little island is covered with, from shore to shore. The Kuna women are dressed traditionally in Molas (shirt), printed wrap skirt, and patterned beads covering shins and forearms. Frequently pierced noses and perhaps painted lines on forehead and nose. The men wear modern clothing. We asked why this was, the answer-- the men have to work all day and fish and bring in food, so they don´t have time to make nice traditional clothing like the women do.

We take a walk through town...

All at sea

First impression of Captain Dennis-- stepping off the boat with a plastic bag full of viagra, passing them out as stocking stuffers to the local indigenous people on the tiny island of Porvenir in the islands of San Blas, Panama. I knew I was in for something... different. I wasn´t sure how I felt about it.

Back to the beginning, Portobelo. The original point of embarcation. The 23rd of December. Portobelo is a tiny, sort of creepy town which makes you feel like you are creeping around the ruins of a real-live Caribbean pirate town. Which you are. Sir Francis Drake´s body is at the bottom of the bay, in the port of Portobelo, for REALS. Portobelo has certainly seen better days. But I was so damn happy to be out of Panama City, and it really does have this decayed, eerie charm to it. It also has a black Jesus. Apparently it inspires many pilgrimages.

Joe arrived soon after I did on the 22nd, and we split a hotel room for the night. Sunset was gorgeous. He taught me how to play cribbage and we had a long conversation. Just the two of us. You can tell Portobelo is an exceedingly quiet town when you´re witnessing the town´s hot spot across the road from the one and only restaurant you´re eating at. And that hot spot is the supermercado.

Joe, as a recurring character in this story, now gets a brief description. Very tall. 6'4'' I think. Earrings in both ears. He´s kind of beautiful. He sort of looks like an overgrown, more muscular elf. There´s something dancer-like about his body, though he is definitely not a dancer. He is from Seattle, is a computer programmer I believe, and is driving his motorcycle from Seattle to Tierro del Fuego at the bottom of Argentina. Pretty much tearing that dream apart. He comes off completely confident in everything about himself. He´s smart. And can be very soulful. Unless he´s just charmed the wool over my eyes. He loves to get naked.

The next day we tried to get in touch with the captain or Kathryn, semi-organizer of this trip.

Kathryn. I met her my first day in Panama City and spent a couple of days with her in Isla Taboga. She works with Captain Dennis, for the moment anyway, and was organizing the crew for the Fantasy. Smart. Beautiful. Charms the hell out of every boy she comes across because she doesn´t seem to give a shit about anything anybody else thinks about her. Is a bit of a lush. Ascerbic wit. Sarcastic. Has been through a lot and is enjoying the hell out of life now. I would say that is currently her M.O. Originally from Texas, until recently lived in Brooklyn. Worked with NGOs. Photographer. She´s the kind of person that will pick you up something from the store when you didn´t ask for it. Staying in Sapzurro, Colombia, working at Dennis´s new hostel. Will almost certainly get up to trouble there. Gets a thrill from speedos and being called `The Help`.

Joe and I meandered around town as we waited for someone to return our emails. Our only instructions had been to show up in Portobelo, and we´d take off in the evening. Rather vague, but that´s Central America for you. We had mystery breakfast for $1. I was assured there was no meat, but mystery breakfast turned out to be two hotdogs and two pieces of fried dough. Dog food it is. I poked into the old cemetery where literally everything was falling apart. Bones opened up to the elements.

Received the frustrating news that we had gone to Portobelo for nothing. We had to go back to Panama City to go up to Carti on a $25 jeep ride. More money, more time, more effort. This better be worth it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sneaking a picture of some Kuna women

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Still safe

I've been out of reach of the Internet, in fact I think it may be a
small miracle if this goes through, but I am still safe and sound.
Just still on this blasted boat! I've been worrying that you may be
worrying-- some difficulties with irresponsible captain. Hopefully on
my way soon... But safe anyway!

Sent from my iPhone