Into South America: Week 4

image When I signed off last week, one of my biggest frustrations was not being able to speak the language. So certainly one of my biggest giggles this past week was being asked at a cafe to be a translator between the cashier and an Australian couple…OMG…the irony!! But I managed to help them. I have also been complemented on my Spanish accent which I find very hard to believe.

Wednesday I spent the day getting my tooth reconstructed by a very good dentist in Medellin (pronounced medajeen), and getting to know the area of El Poblado. Very hip and modern part of the city, with lots of beautiful hotels, restaurants and shops. Very first world, and they know what they’re doing. I also switched hostels, moving right next door for half the price. I had heard of another spot, the Black Sheep Hostel run by a New Zealander, so made arrangements to move there for Thursday and Friday. It’s a very popular spot with young people…so I fit right in (well sort of, not really)! They had a tour going out Thursday, so a signed up for that.

With Rafael

With Rafael

There was an interesting mix of Canadians, Americans, British, Australian, and Dutch. All early twenties. We all piled into a big blue bus, led by Rafael, a local 30-something dude. He and I looked at each other and connected, an immediate transfer of powerful positive energy that was way beyond language. Lots more to say about him.

A troubled bridge over water, in Guatapa

A troubled bridge over water, in Guatapa

The destination for the day was Guatape, about two hours North East of Medellin. But as it turned out, the destination didn’t really matter. There was strong positive energy on that bus right from the get go…singing, dancing, and laughing all the way (ha, ha, ha). Check out this video from about 1 hour in. Samuel, a young musician jumped on the bus and played some tunes for us for awhile. We then jumped off a rickety bridge, that was certainly higher than it looked, at least to me when I was preparing to jump. Check out this clip.

imageThen we arrived at Guatape and climbed a HUGE rock (740 stairs to the top!), that looks like it has absolutely no business being there. About half way up there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. There is a Spanish sign on her that reads “please don’t touch the virgin,” which I thought was very funny, although I was too tired to laugh at the time. imageAfter the climb Raffy prepared a home-made picnic lunch for us. On the way back we stopped at a few quaint little towns along the way. I also got to chat with Raffy about all kinds of things: the people of Colombia, drug wars, how Pablo Escobar basically ran the country, how that was solved, and how the solution may be worse than problem, why most women here get boob and/or lip and/or other cosmetic surgery, and much more. Raffy has no formal education, but is a very wordly wise man. He spent about 10 years travelling South America in his teens and twenties, before settling down and having kids. This has given him a perspective on life and people that no school can ever teach you. At the end of the tour, Raffy invited me to join him the next day to visit the central market and run some errands, so of course I accepted. This turned out to be an incredibly rich day, beyond anything I could have ever predicted.

He picked me up this morning and we toured the central market, a very different experience because I was with a local. Some random dude stopped and wanted to talk to me…he saw that I wan’t local and was interested. Great chat with him about life and people of Colombia. Had lunch there, and then a massive wind and rain and thunder and lightning storm hit. They say they haven’t seen this kind of rain in 20 years. One of the waitresses thought I was Santa Clause. Now, I realize I have a slightly bigger belly than when I left Canada, but Santa Clause? Seriously? Although I remain a gringo, so far it feels a little different in Colombia…many more people seem interested in the fact that I am not from there.

Pancho gringo

Pancho gringo

Then he invited me to his place for the night. I hesitated at first…the unknown…but then figured I could not experience life in Colombia in a better way, and simply could not say no. So we picked up his wife, one of his kids, and drove about an hour up and through the mountains to his place, where I spent the night. He has a small hostel of his own there, right next to where he lives with his wife and kids. We spent the evening chatting, having a few drinks, listening to music, and enjoying each other’s company, high in the mountains, with a spectacular view of the full moon and lightning storms rumbling around in the distance. I will always remember his kindness and generosity of spirit. Here’s a short clip.

Saturday, Raffy drove me back to the hostel where I packed up and headed to the airport for a quick hop to Santa Marta on the North coast. I had booked a few days earlier with Viva Colombia, a local discount airline. Although the entire experience from buying tickets to boarding is a bit of a shit show, it turned out to be a very lively flight. I got the sense that very few of these folks had flown before, and most of the 200+ on board seemed to be having the time of their lives, finishing the flight with a raucous round of applause. It was surprisingly refreshing, so much so that I almost didn’t mind all the kids crying and screaming, and being treated like cattle.

imageI was in a window seat next to a small boy and his mum (Jennifer). The husband was sitting two rows up. It was clearly a thrill to be flying for both of them, so I offered them the window seat, and suggested ways for them to deal with the pressure change. I also gave the small boy a Canada pin. (As a side note, I always travel with these now…people everywhere really appreciate this small gift, and you can get a bunch for free from your local MP office). Once the husband (John Freddy) got wind of this, he was so happy and appreciative…you’d think I’d bought him a house! He kept shaking my hand and thanking me. Then he wanted to take a bunch of pictures as we were heading for the exits. We were holding everyone up, but no one seemed to mind, and seemed to be as happy and excited about all this as he was!

I seem to be surrounded by lots of positive energy lately, especially the last few days, and everywhere I go it seems. Not sure how or why, but something is definitely happening. Maybe it’s the full moon.

Feeling more comfortable and confident, I decided to take the bus from the airport, and save some money to boot. Beautiful drive at sunset along the coast. I showed the driver the address and he told me where to get off about 20 minutes later. So out I went, quite proud of myself, walking up and down 21st street, but could not find the hostel. Turns out he let me off in the wrong city! Santa Marta was another 20 minutes up the road! Bad man….apparently they often do this to save time and money. With the help of a friendly local, I hopped a cab to Santa Marta.

I was greeted at the Aluna hotel by Luis, who was reading the bible. When I told him my name was Jonathan, he looked at the bible, and then again at me, and made a connection. Not sure if he caught it when I jokingly tried to explain that Jonathan means “gift from God.” Beautiful little hotel, run by Patrick, an Irishman. These Irish seem to be everywhere! Very peaceful and orderly place though. They clearly care about their clients and surroundings, and I love that. It doesn’t matter to me how fancy it is, as long as someone cares.

Santa Marta is a fairly big town of about 700,000. Geographically it’s a very interesting spot where mountains, beach, and jungle meet. So far, very good vibe in this town, but it’s really hot and humid. And on my first night here, I had the best meal of my trip, and perhaps the best fish dish I have ever had. I think it was sea bass, with an interesting combination of veggies…contrasting yet complementary flavours. And mercifully, no rice. At $13, it was expensive compared to what I have become accustomed to the last few weeks, but cheap compared to what you pay at home. I don’t usually write much about food, but this meal was exquisite. I also tried a new drink…beer, rum, sugar, and lime, with salt around the rim. I am not much of a beer drinker anymore, but this drink was delicious and totally refreshing!

Sunday I made the journey into the national park, Tayrona…tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains and hugged by the Caribbean Sea. The journey started with a cab ride with Irving, the cabbie. We were at a very busy intersection waiting to turn left. There was a guy on a motorbike ahead of us, in the middle of the intersection, on the phone, completely oblivious to everyone around him. “Idiota,” I said (I had learned that with Raffy). Well, Irving roared with laughter for the next five minutes, like this was the funniest thing he had ever heard! Then a 90-minute bus ride in a local “collectivo” to the entrance of the park. Then a short ride in a jam-packed mini bus to where the hike in would begin. Here is a short clip.

imageA fairly easy hike I guess by most standards, but I found it quite tough through the jungle in the 45 Celsius heat. Eventually the trail led to the Atlantic Ocean (dangerous, not swimmable), and continued North along the coastline to Cabo San Juan…about 2 hours hike in total. The trail and park and ocean…all stunning. But the experience was marred for me by the people who work in the park…from the ticket person at the front gate, to the shuttle drivers, to the restaurant staff in Cabo. They are all fully aware that they are the only game in town and treat the visitors with complete indifference. But I did enjoy the surroundings, and when I finally arrived at swimmable beaches, they were magnificent. Beach, jungle, and mountains…all in one spot. I wondered again, as I have many times before when looking up at palm trees: how many people die each year from coconuts falling on their heads? I think I must have been quite delirious.

Lots of young folk here from all over the world. Most people camp in the park or rent a hammock. I was not in the mood to stay overnight, but neither was I looking forward to hiking all the way back for the return journey. So I was very happy when I discovered that I could take a high speed boat back from Cabo to Taranga, close to Santa Marta. The 4 pm departure didn’t leave til 5, and the boat crew were rude and condescending. Again…the only game in town, and they knew it. During the trip back, I tried to push all that negativity away and enjoy the bumpy ride and the spectacular scenery as we made our way West along the wild coastline. Big, fast, safe looking boat, but I was a little concerned when the old dude in the front whose job was to hold the anchor in place and watch the water made the father/son/Holy Ghost sign as we were leaving. But watching the crew do their thing, I did end up appreciating their expertise, even though I had trouble shaking this heavy energy. When we arrived at Taranga, even the dogs picked up on it and were barking madly at me. Very rare, that. Even rarer that I barked back.

I am annoyed with myself that I allowed other people to affect my park experience.

With Luis, like we have been friends forever.

With Luis, like we have been friends forever.

I finally made it back to Aluna Hostel, and was greeted again by Luis, this time very warmly. Not that he was cold before, but something shifted, and it felt like we were old friends. A beautiful spirit, he has. I told him of some of the day’s frustrations and he apologized on behalf of Colombians. He then said ” tu es un persona mas elegante” (or something like that). I was surprised because I certainly did not feel very elegant. But certainly an nstant energy shift. I then ventured out into the town, which was very quiet compared to the night before. Everything was closed and most of the streets were very quiet. I had a quick bite at a cafe I had discovered the night before…another beautiful meal…fresh, exquisitely prepared shrimp ceviche, and the best mojito I have ever had.

Also ran into a young man staying at the same hostel who was just on the Panama-Colombia sail boat crossing. And on the same catamaran I will be on in three days. And at the park today, I ran into a young woman who was on the Ecuadorian jungle tour with me a week or so ago. What are the odds?

On Monday I decided to head to Minca to visit a coffee operation in the mountains. After a short cab ride to the market I found the SUV headed to Minca. I sat around for about 20 minutes with two other people, and with no sign that we were leaving, I lost patience and got up to leave. Then there was some action, and agreed to pay a little more to leave right away (a gringo surcharge?). I learned that if you behave like a wallflower here, you will be ignored.

With Louis and our two very good bike drivers.

With Louis and our two very good bike drivers.

I met a young guy from France who was going to the same place, and he could speak Spanish, so we joined forces and spent the rest of the day together. After 45 minutes up the mountain in an SUV, then another 20 on the back of a motorbike on a very bad road (imagine the, err, challenges with my ongoing intestinal problems?) we finally arrived in one piece. The scenery on the way up was spectacular as we climbed into the clouds, through massive bamboo and other trees. And the air was pure and much more comfortable.

Great coffee farm tour with Jaime...bean there!

Great coffee farm tour with Jaime…bean there!

Then a very interesting and private tour of the coffee facility, where the whole 6-day process was explained, from harvesting to washing, cleaning, drying, and roasting. Made me wonder again, not for the first time, who could possibly have initially figured this out thousands of years ago. Our guide, Jaime, said that legend has it that it started in Ethiopia. Some farmers noticed cows eating the berries and then acting strangely. So they got rid of the berries by throwing them into the fire. And then noticed how good it smelled. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds plausible.

Then it started to rain and we still had to go back down by bike which worried me. They were good drivers, but still…the road was very bad, and now getting slick and very wet. I was anxious, but at a certain point I started saying to myself “Jesus take the wheel.” And I guess he did.

imageStopped for lunch (the dogs were MUCH friendlier today) and then coffee, and listened to Louis chat up a young Dutch woman running the coffee shop on the science of sex. A long chat. Ahhh…the French! He also told me a little trick he uses to help travelling intestinal issues…he drinks a bottle a day, and swears it kills everything! And I’m ready to try almost anything! Then a long drive back by car this time, spending about an hour driving down the rest of the mountain in 1st gear!

Then back to the hostel where I chatted with Patrick the Irish owner we had been here for about 14 years. He explained how things used to be in Colombia: government, drug cartels, guerillas, how thousands of people were murdered, and how the clean up process began. I still find it quite incredible how quickly Colombia has gone from very dangerous to very livable.

Overall, Santa Marta is chaotic, dirty, poor, and by and large the people are not as open and friendly as other parts of the country. It’s also very loud everywhere, like everyone is desperate to be heard. When I am not well rested, I find it quite draining. And the oppressive heat takes its toll on me. I get the expression “crazy from the heat.” It must also have long-term affects on the people who live here. But almost without exception when I had the energy and patience to push through all that, I could feel temperaments and attitudes changing for the better, and overall I really quite enjoyed them. Despite all the issues I ran into, I don’t regret coming here.

Tuesday I left Santa Marta for the 4+ hour bus ride West to Cartagena where I will begin a five-day sailing trip by catamaran to Panama, through the famous San Blas islands. I met with captain David Tuesday night, and honestly I’m not quite sure what I have gotten myself into here. They are all 20 something, and I am definitely the oldest by far. Not sure how relaxing it will be, but I suppose I must approach this like another adventure. I must keep an open mind. The French captain seemed to be a bit scattered at first, but I chatted with him and feel he is competent, and we connected in French. No real opinion yet on Cartagena…feeling my usual discombobulation when I first arrive somewhere new. And I have arrived here at Carnival time so everything is louder and more insane than usual. I have already been bumped by a bunch of prostitutes who tried to pickpocket me, but I was ready for them. Sorry ladies…not this gringo.

‘Til then,