Countries hot and cold

In Russia, people would always tell me how because I’m from a hot country, my personality doesn’t suit being in a cold country like theirs.  The theory goes that people from warm places are ‘warm’ people, open and friendly, while people from cold places have (you’ll never guess) ‘cold’, reserved personalities.  I personally think this is all rot.  Especially given that in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had ‘warm’ experiences with people from locations as diverse as Finland, Canada, Italy and Argentina.

Yesterday I went to meet a lady who I swapped details with at the climate conference in Istanbul the other week.  She had what sounded like a promising idea, so she sent me some of her project management plan and materials to have a look over.  I thought it was great, and when we realised that we were both in Athens, we decided to meet up.

As it turns out, the lady is the wife of the Finnish Ambassador, and so the meeting took place at their massive house in the suburbs.  It was crazy (and also really nice)!  I played with the two girls for a while as the lady made lunch, then we discussed the project for a few hours, and it does sound like an interesting venture.  She wants someone like me to handle the Australian part, which is something I’m very open to: but of course, que sera sera.

After we’d finished our extended brain-storm/meeting, we and the two girls went and jumped in the pool.  The youngest daughter had to leave for tennis lessons shortly afterward though, and she was distraught.  She was crying that she ‘didn’t realise how fun Laura would be’, and didn’t want to leave.  Haha in the end, I agreed to go to an adventure park with them all on Tuesday (thankfully, their shout—not sure my budget of 10 euro a day after accommodation will stretch that far haha!)

It wasn’t much longer before it was time for me to rush off, too.  I needed to get back to near my hostel by 6pm, to pick up some business cards I’d had made.  You meet so many people travelling, and I was finding I was writing my details down a couple of times a day.  15 euro well-spent!  I didn’t realise quite how well-spent until later, however.

A few hours later, I was back in the hostel room with the pants-less Italian (who has since developed both a name and a personality, so we’re kind of almost friends-ish now), when four new guys checked in to take our empty beds.  These guys were all from Argentina, and so incredibly good-looking that the next day I went down to tell the front desk girl that I loved all of the hostel’s staff for putting them in my room (when the girl saw them later, she was rendered almost speechless as well).  Again, no objectification here.

Anyway, one of the guys was just spectacular—one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in my life.  Sadly though, I was in the linguistic minority last night, so didn’t talk to any of them, just listened to the Spanish and Italian flying around.  I can pick up the gist sometimes thanks to having had studied French for so long, but mainly I just read my book.  I was super-tired, anyhow.

This morning I woke up (no, shit.), and two of the other Argentinians told me that they were from Buenos Aires and checking out today.  I still hadn’t had the chance to speak with  Zoolander, but had to give up the opportunity as I was teaching an English lesson on Skype.  Then, in what was a clear flash of genius, I wrote down when I’d be in Buenos Aires on the back of a business card and gave it to him.  Classiest girl in the world.  (A few minutes later was a proud one for me, when the guy waved bye, said he’d see me in BA, and winked—and I didn’t giggle.  Because that would have been a somewhat awkward thing to explain to my student haha!)

Back to my fairly vague point for today: it seems to me that I’m Australian but more than a little Russified (so am lacking in temperature identity?!), then both Finnish and Latino people are equally warm.  I can’t understand where this ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ countries/people thing came from.  Just another of the many cultural traditions in Russia which serve to put people in the the ‘Other’ box I suppose.

The (only) blonde at the airport

I’m in Colombia!  Yeah!!  Not that getting here wasn’t fraught with its usual disasters, of course.

For a start, there’s the minor detail that I don’t actually have a flight out of Colombia yet.  I’ve got one from Buenos Aires in ten weeks (which I’m obviously now changing to be around 6.5 weeks earlier), but nothing booked and paid here from here.  When I reached Madrid, I was told that this would be a problem.

I found the counter (almost a miracle in itself, the airport was huge!!) to check-in, and wondered if I’d done everything properly.  Almost every single suitcase of every person in line was wrapped up in some kind of security cling film, as well as having padlocks: whereas I don’t even bother locking my bags.  For starters, I always figure that locks can be cut off; for second, who smuggles things into Colombia—did I really have anything to worry about?  So I asked the check-in assistant and she just about rolled her eyes as she said “yes, they like to do that.”  I used my hostel padlock to lock the main section of my bag, in a half-concession to Colombian airport fashion.

Next, the lady checked my ticket, then asked to see my return flight.  I said that I didn’t have a flight from Colombia, just from Argentina: and she said that wouldn’t be enough for them to let me into the country.  Omg.  (Reliable information about entry requirements for Colombia are very hard to come by: even that of the Consulate in Australia is all over the show).  Happily, I then remembered my travel agent’s incompetence, and the million ‘practice’ itineraries he’d sent through.  I found one which said that I was confirmed on a flight to Lima, and off we went.

The flight itself was fine, if lengthy.  It had a random stopover in Cali (also Colombia), where we landed after our connecting flight was due to take off: but more on that in a sec.  The only bad thing about the flight was that, yet again, my travel agent hadn’t told the airline I was vegetarian, so I didn’t have much to eat.  It was only a twelve hour flight, but I hadn’t been hungry the day before so hadn’t had a meal in about 36 hours.  By the second meal-time on the plane, I was ravenous.  They didn’t have anything for me, but I asked if they had any of the cakes extra, or anything like that.  The next thing you know, the Colombians around me are having a discussion in Spanish about this hungry English-speaking girl, and food starts to appear in front of me from all directions.  There’s cakes, nuts and snacks.  It was so sweet!

The other thing that bears mentioning about the flight is the clapping.  Russians do this, too: when the plane lands, they break out in a round of applause.  I like to think that it’s because they’re so surprised they’ve survived (Russian airlines don’t have a strong history of safe flights).  As it turns out, Colombians do it too: but to a much greater degree.  The plane landed and there was applause, cat-calls, whooping, and yelled congratulations.  It was so great!  On the one hand I caught myself thinking why on earth they do it.  Then all of a sudden, I started wondering why we Westerners don’t do it.  Is safely flying hundreds of people across the world not worth some recognition?  We clap at plays and performances to show our appreciation; we thank our doctors or surgeons; we give a token ‘thank you’ to stewards as we depart the vessel, but we don’t thank our pilots.  Why is that?  Do we take them for granted, or are we just weirdly reserved?  Are we just too cool to clap?

Anyway I finally made it to Bogota, where I could see my friend Laura in the arrivals hall.  My baggage then took ages, so by the time I could walk out to greet her, she and her father must have been waiting a couple of hours in the middle of the night.  They then took me back to their villa, in a town called Chia (meaning ‘moon’ in the local indigenous tongue).  Omg their house is amazing: it’s all wooden flor-boards and features, white walls, huge ceilings and the best of everything.  Minimalist perfection.  I’m sitting in the room I’m staying in, and it has its own bathroom; and a freaking loft.  There is a loft above my head right now, with one of those little pull-down ladders you see for attics in American horror movies.  A loft.  Even the shower is awesome, allowing you to select where you’d like water to come from.  There are water options?  And did I mention the maid?  I’ve never even seen a maid before!  She’s lovely, and her name is Consuela.  She doesn’t speak English of course, and I don’t speak Spanish, so we’ve had some pretty hysterical conversations thus far.  Incidentally, I’m beyond stoked at the passive knowledge of Spanish I seem to have acquired.  I’ve studied a grand total of 5 hours of Spanish in my life, so it feels like magic when I can understand things.  Too much time reading all the languages on the back of labels, perhaps?

I got a little side-tracked there (how un-like me).  I meant to say how I know Laura.  I met her when I was in Athens in March ’12: I went on a free walking tour from my awesome hostel, with a guy called Vangelis.  I heard her introduce herself as Laura, so walked up to her and congratulated her on having a cool name.  We chatted a little during the tour, though I spent a lot of the time discussing ancient Greek literature and philosophy with the guide: geek for Greek.  Later on, we went to the New Acropolis Museum, then went for a girl-date at a restaurant, where we bonded over ex-bf stories.  As you do!  At some point during the day, not long after we’d become acquainted, she said to me that I shouldn’t go to Russia; I should go to Colombia instead.  I said that no, I was going to Russia at this point in time, but would try to make it to Colombia at some point later on: and here I am!

I know less about Colombia than I did about Russia when I arrived.  Which you’d think would be difficult, really.  There’s the cocaine, of course, and coffee.  Drug dealers and civil war.  Jungles and guns.  Plus a sort of “Latin America”-ness.  I’ve put as the featured image today the current Australian travel advice about Colombia, and obviously it’s generally “don’t go there!”.  Laura seems to think it’s not very dangerous however: maybe tenfifteen years ago, but not so much now.  I’ll be careful of course.  I mean obviously I’m not going anywhere near the coca farms etc, and as I understand it my main other danger is kidnapping: there’s a roaring trade in kidnapping and ransoming US citizens.  But I’m sure it’ll be fine.  Either way, I’m going to go to the Australian Consulate while I”m here to check in, and I’m sure they’ll give me suggestions.

Time to do some work on the book: I’m having a sort of recovery day today, following the epic flight and time difference.  I’m in the middle of an important scene, and over halfway through!  Hurrah 🙂

El diálogo es superior al asalto.

Pictured: the worst possible business card to give to a vegetarian.

Today’s blog post is named for a poster I saw at a bus stop yesterday: it had a man and a woman, and the slogan that ‘dialogue is better than assault’.  I’m not even sure what else to say about that.

After a day of what was essentially just sleeping on Tuesday, yesterday I ventured into the big wide Colombian world.  Laura had drawn me a map of how to get to the mall where I could exchange my euros, so that was mission number one.  It reminded me weirdly of this computer game we used to play in primary school, EcoQuest.  In that, you were plonked in a Latin American village, and your first challenge was to change money.  (Actually it’s terrifying how often my life reminds me of computer games I’ve played—my favourite series ever, Sierra’s Quest for Glory, depicts locations from all over the world: and by now, I’ve been to rather a lot of them).  So, off I went.  And I was terrified.  Almost to the point of passing out—I’m not quite sure why.  I suppose being in new surroundings are always stressful, and it’s particularly the case where you’re like this blonde giant on the street.  It takes a while to get used to everyone staring at you, and to not feeling threatened by it.  Haha I’m nowhere near as brave as people think I am!

I made it to the money exchange bureau, and after convincing the lady that I am not in fact American, and did not have US dollars, mission one was complete!  I wandered outside, intending on making my way to the bus stop for the town centre, and got distracted by a bus going in the other direction.  It appeared to have the name of a place around half an hour away, which Laura had suggested I visit, so on an impulse I jumped on.

Soon enough I was in Zipaquira, the ‘salt capital of Colombia’.  I’m not sure how old the place is, though I’m guessing around 400-500 years.  As I would later learn, this whole region used to be part of an incredibly salty sea.  It later dried up, and thanks to tectonic forces there were giant salt blobs created all over the place.  The salt blob (possibly not the technical term) at Zipaquira is 1km square, and 2km deep: so really, quite a bit of salt.  It was first used by the indigenous Muiscas people, and they became rich in its trade.  Later, the Spaniards arrived and mining got properly underway.  Part of this mine was turned into a cathedral—the Catedral de Sal.  I went to check it out, and as it was quite early and there weren’t yet any other English speakers there for a tour, went in by myself.  I learned a lot less, but it was way cooler: by walking slowly, I could avoid the lights automatically switching on, and with the music of chanting monks echoing through the vast caverns, it was super-atmospheric.

Soon after that, because I’m a complete newb, my camera’s battery ran out, so I don’t have any photos of the town itself.  Unfortunately!  I was really sleepy anyway—I’m going to use jetlag as an excuse, but in reality I need an almost embarrassing amount of sleep every day—so I headed back to the house for a short nap.  Haha four hours later..!

Poor Laura—the entire family in fact—work far too hard.  She gets up at 4-5:30 for work every day, and gets home at around 20:30.  It’s crazy!  Then, when she got home last night, her father had lots of questions for me about Australia and our culture, so she acted as translator: I don’t even know how her brain didn’t melt!  It was very cute though, her father said that I could come and be Laura’s sister, learn Spanish, teach English and marry a ‘nice Colombian boy’.  Haha I told him that they’re all too short :p

Two Lauras, an Angel and a potato.

The right-hand side of today’s featured image is a pretty accurate depiction of me at the moment.  One big blob of lazy!  I’ve been doing nothing!

After my adventure to the salt cathedral on Wednesday, Thursday’s  mission was to head into Bogota with Laura’s sister Angie.  We didn’t get going until very late, and I also didn’t realise how long it would actually take to get to the centre of the city: around two hours!  So I got there, headed for Monserrate, a mountain overlooking the city, and came home again.  Also, I missed nap-time.  Disaster!

I managed to survive the day without any real drama (other than being, again, the only blonde on the street and therefore subject to an entirely-in-Spanish lot of attention).  Well, other than my descent of the mountain.  I’d caught a cable car up, and am incredibly glad I did: simply walking the stairs from the top of the lift to the church on the top had me all out of breath.  Yes, I’m unfit, but the 3100-odd metres above sea level didn’t help much!

I decided that I’d walk down the mountain.  It wasn’t necessarily a great idea.  It was a couple of kilometres down, on very uneven rock steps, and my ever-practical boots have a slight heel.  Needless to say, my legs were quivering by the end!  This was more than a little exacerbated by the speed at which I had to do it.  The path closed at 4pm, though I wasn’t too concerned about that.  Until, that is, a local lady saw me taking a photo, asked whether I was going up or down, and when I said down, started to freak out.  (Again, all in Spanish of course).  She was worried that I wouldn’t make it the whole way down before the police left at 4pm, and I’d be in a lot of danger.  So yes, I went rather quickly.

Friday saw me heading into Bogota once more, to check out the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro).  It was freaking cool: but I love museums.  I’m the person that reads every single description, looks at every item (and mentally makes rude jokes about any and all statues), and in this case spent 3.5 hours checking out just two floors.  The basement held a temporary exhibit about Muiscan offerings.  It was entirely in Spanish, but I gave myself a solid self-five (totally different to a clap) for being able to understand almost all of it.

Next it was time for a coffee, where I ended up speaking to an Iranian man at quite some length.  Unexpectedly, he said that he likes Colombia because it reminds him a lot of Iran.  They’re just two places I wouldn’t have thought would be similar.

The main parts of the museum are in both English and Spanish.

Saturday was Laura’s day off… kind of.  She was meant to go to class in the morning, but slept and did homework instead.  Really, they’re a crazily hard-working family!  Whereas I am super-lazy.  I’m just lazy in various countries.  In the afternoon we went for a drive and a little explore, including going up a small mountain and checking the view of Chia.

Today, finally.  Again I did almost nothing: I was arranging flights, tours, payments, more flights, more tours, more payments, and that’s pretty much it til the afternoon.  I went into central Chia and took a couple of photos, then walked back to Laura’s house.  I suddenly started craving being in a forest, then realised it was because I was barely breathing.  I couldn’t figure it out: there’s no way in the world a flat walk of a few kilometres should have me just about panting!  Turns out I’m at 2564 metres.  That’ll do it!

Tomorrow I’m off to Santa Marta, where I’ll be for a couple of days exploring the area before heading to Cartagena.  After that, Medellin, then a brief stop back here before heading to the Amazon (Leticia) for around five days.  Then one more day back in Bogota before flying back to Australia via Fiji.  Then (da da dummmmmmmm) real world.  Yikes!

Santa Marta

Uncharacteristically, I am hiding from Happy Hour, so it’s a happy coincidence that I have a lot to write about!

Colombians are freaking awesome.  Really.  They’re the friendliest, happiest, most helpful people ever.  I caught a series of buses to get to the airport today, and at every station people walked up to me (it’s pretty easy to see I’m not from  here) and made sure I was okay and I knew where I was going.  When I got to the end of the line—awesomely named ‘El Dorado’—a man who had discovered I was going to the same airport showed me the way, taking me to the next bus, and dropping me off at the check-in counter.  Once I got to the gate, I was then adopted by two further Colombians (these ones spoke English).  The lady moved our seats so that I was sitting next to her on the plane and translated everything.  When we landed in Santa Marta, they even gave me a lift to near my hostel, saving me the taxi fare.  They were just outrageously nice!  And that is what all Colombians are like.

My Spanish is progressing as disastrously as ever.  I got a taxi earlier and the man kept trying to talk to me.  He’d throw the occasional short sentence out in English (which I’d think was in Spanish, thanks to his accent, and therefore not understand), between long clause-filled sentences in Spanish.  I got the point eventually, but it was laborious!  I’m getting slightly better though.  Slightly.  I went to dinner just now and when they didn’t have an English menu, explained that I was vegetarian.  They showed me the vegie options and I said that I didn’t know what the ingredients are.  I even managed to explain that I don’t like everything.  (Namely mushrooms, btw.  Which seem to be the go-to ‘vegetarian option’ in most places.  Eugh!)  They actually understood me, it was crazy.  I do need to stop saying “da, no, si” though, it’s a little misleading.

Santa Marta is gorgeous, and exactly what’s necessary.  The town’s nestled between a curving beach and the Sierra Nevada mountains: absolutely stunning.  The place is full of people, stalls, and colour.  I even saw a lady carrying things in a basket on her head!  Weirdly, men here clap if they think you’re hot.  I mean, does one take credit for that kind of thing?  In more interesting clapping-related news, I went to a fantastic busker show on the seafront.  Two of the most brilliant buskers I’ve ever seen.  Somehow I managed to injure myself during the act, taking off my elbow while balancing a ball on a pen.  I took it far too seriously, evidently.

There are a lot of North Americans here.  More than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time before: I feel strangely like I’m in a sit-com.  Haha there’s probably only ten, but still!  I’ve also seen American flags flying, which weirded me out for some reason, and even two “Dunkin’ Donuts” stores.  So weird.  This is my first time in either of the Americas, so the proximity of the US is very strange to me.

On an almost-final note, two guys in my hostel room introduced themselves before, and shook my hand.  I’m sure I would have mentioned at some point that men in Russia don’t shake womens’ hands, and my hand always used to feel left out.  But now, I find it slightly confronting when a man shakes hands with me.  How effective is culture?

Finally, I somehow neglected to share this video some of my students made at summer camp in Finland.  I’m the disembodied voice behind the camera.  Enjoy!