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!

My Tayrona

After my post the other day, I got talking to two German guys in my room.  (Germans being, along with Australians, a constant feature of hostels).  Somehow it ended up in a really intense discussion about parenting techniques, which was a little random!  One of them, Sebastian, who I was originally confused by as he has a strong Australian accent, left the room, and Marco asked me what I was doing the next day.  I said that I didn’t really know, but that I was thinking of going to Tayrona National Park.  He said that was what his compatriot was doing, and why didn’t I join him?  I was initially hesitant (and even more so when S later said that he and his friend, Frank, were leaving at 7am), but figured at least it would motivate me to do something with my day!

6am rolled round, and I’d had not a lot of sleep.  The hostel I was in, La Brisa Loca, was cranking music from the bar til around 4am, and I’d stupidly chosen to stay in a room with a fan but no A/C.  Putting wet clothes on myself helped, but it was still steamy!  Nevertheless, I managed to hoist myself out of bed and made it to the supermarket before awaiting the guys at the bus stop.  While waiting, a Colombian man came up to  me and surprise-hand-shaked me.  You know when someone walks up to you with supreme confidence and their hand out, and you automatically grab it because you think you’re supposed to know them?  Well, that happened.  He then wouldn’t let go of it, and proceeded to hit on me in Spanish.  Needless to say, other than his tone and his bearing (and the fact that the men all around me in the marketplace were giggling), I had no idea what was going on.  At one point the guy pointed to my eyes, then mimed cutting his throat, then grabbed his heart.  Either my eyes were figuratively killing him, or he wanted to kill me, take them with him and create some kind of necklace out of them.  I was still trying to recover my hand and insisting that no, I didn’t want to go and drink the Colombian poison he had with him.  Luckily, at this point, the shop-keeper behind me, who’d previously helped me to open a drink, intervened and smuggled me into his store.

Shortly afterward, the bus driver said that my ‘dos amigos’ had arrived, and sure enough, they had.  It was pretty easy to tell who was with me: they were the only other Westerners in the market.  So we piled into the van (which was freaking amazing, btw: the door was barely hanging on, the walls were incredibly rusty, and it apparently had a maximum of three gears) and off we went.

We arrived at the second entrance to Tayrona and got going.  Someone had suggested it to Sebastian because we could walk in there, and it would be a longish way but almost entirely downhill to the main entrance, from where we could bus home.  Mannn am I glad that was the way we went: after an initial bit of uphill, where I just about died and started to match my red t-shirt, it was downhill the rest of the way.  As was the conversation haha.

It was a freaking great day actually, I had so much fun (I’ll have to post photos later though, I seem to have left my camera back in the hostel—where neither the internet nor the water is working).  The first couple of hours, which Frank attempted in jeans, were through gorgeous jungle.  We saw a snake (it was a snake!!  it was!!), beautifully coloured lizards, amazing butterflies (including one huge, electric blue one), and so so many ants.   They’d created roads which would go for tens if not hundreds of metres at a time, with one chain going to a food source or some such, and the chain in the other direction carrying things back to the nest.  We may have played with them for quite a long time.

Eventually, after a short stop in the old settlement of Pueblito, we reached a beach, and I was destroyed.  Definitely a big part of it is my incredibly low level of fitness (though happily the guys gave me rest breaks when I needed them).  However in addition to that, I haven’t really been able to eat in Colombia.  I don’t know whether it’s the heat (though Bogota would argue against that), the altitude (though Santa Marta would argue against that) or the malaria tablets I’ve been taking, but I just can’t manage it.  One medium-sized meal a day is about all I can cope with—yesterday, all I managed was a bag of crisps and half a biscuit.  So my energy levels are a little low, as you can imagine!

We stopped briefly at the beach for a well-deserved swim.  By this point we’d been hiking for hours in the tropical heat, and all looked as though we were showering-in-clothes enthusiasts.  However we couldn’t stop long, as we still had a couple more hours to the main entrance, and didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Santa Marta.  Soon enough, it was on the road again (‘road’, in this case, being a very loose term: horses had destroyed the ground so much that it was barely a path).  I honestly don’t know how I did it.  Stubbornness, perhaps?  With only around half an hour left, we saw some tiny monkeys, and then all of a sudden it was dark.  Next thing you know, the rains had started.  It was so much fun!  S had an umbrella and took my non-water-happy items, while Frank went and got changed into his full German Border Control waterproofs.  I, meanwhile, was at least as happy as a super-happy duck, and had a great time being rained on, jumping in puddles and getting stuck in mud.  It may have been my favourite part of the day.  I haven’t been tropical-rained-on since living on Hayman Island in the Whitsundays (Aus), and it makes me so happy.  I remember once on Hayman, a colleague and I had to do some boat-work and it started to rain so much that we couldn’t see.  I held my hands above my face so that I could breathe: though it was still hard to breathe when I was laughing so much at my colleague throwing a tanty about the rain.  Best!

We made it to the car-park; but, no bus.  So we continued walking toward the main road.  I was sufficiently hyper about the rain to magically have energy again, and was having a lovely time.  This energy pretty much ran out when we reached the road however, and it was only through the urgings of our fearless leader Sebastian that exhausted-me and non-assertive-Frank made it onto a bus.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for a shower (meaning that during the day, I had been sweat-wet, ocean-wet, shower-wet, sweat-wet, rain-wet, then shower-wet once more: lucky my tattoo’s healed!), then I went to the supermarket with Marco for alcomahols and shared a pizza with S.  Frank had disappeared, and I can’t blame him.  At one point I scuttled off to my bed for a lie-down.  I didn’t want to go to sleep, as my plan was drinking with the guys that night, but my body couldn’t stand being non-horizontal any more!  Then it was to the roof for some drinks.  We tried to venture for a night out to Taganga at around midnight, but it was all closed, so returned to the hostel bar before the roof once more.  I was sitting with S, an English guy (Alexis), and two Swiss guys whose names I completely didn’t get at any point (traditional good form).  Marco also reappeared at some point.  Next thing you know, it’s 4am.  Everything was starting to die down, so it was pretty much off to bed.

Yet again I got very little sleep (yayyyyy two hours), but a shower was enough of a motivation to get me up.  I debated staying in Santa Marta for another day, but felt there wasn’t that much else to see, and how could I top the previous 24 hours?  So I decided to head to the aquarium, then catch the 15:30 to Cartagena.

Frank reappeared again, and we kind of bullied him into coming to the aquarium with me.  He and I piled into a taxi to the dock, grabbed a boat, and it occurred to me that I completely didn’t have enough time for these sorts of shenanigans.  We reached the aquarium, and I told the boat driver that I didn’t have time so would go back.  Frank said “oh, I’ll come with you.”  To which I said no, and ordered him out of the boat.  On one side he had the boat driver trying to help him out of the boat, and on the other side me saying ‘Get out of the boat, Frank!  Go to the aquarium!!’, and he couldn’t really help complying.  Peer pressure, much?

It was then a further couple of boats to get me back to where I could get to Santa Marta, and in the end I somehow didn’t pay for any of them.  So I got a lovely water tour for free—win!  Then it was finding a taxi and just getting back to the hostel in time.  Haha nearly 24 hours later, i’ve done little but sleep, though I’m thinking of going to a volcano this afternoon where I can play in the mud.  As if that won’t be unreal.

It’s weird in a way—yesterday reminded me of everything I love about travelling, and how going on adventures with people you’ve just met can be the best thing ever.  Today on the other hand I feel like I want to know awesome people for doses of more than 24 hours!  I love meeting other proper, long-term travellers (as per Marco and Sebastian), because you can skip the Four Questions which everyone in hostels gets (where are you from?  where are you going?  how long are you travelling for?  where have you been?) and just get straight amongst it.  I love travellers because I suppose there’s no fear: the 24-thing is simultaneously awful and amazing.  On the one hand, you’ll never see them again, but on the other, there’s no point in inhibitions.  For that reason, habitual travellers are open, and fun, and not hateful.  Haha toward other travellers, anyway.  Living the lifestyle I have for the last almost-ten years, I’ve met so many extreme people.  We all live across the world, rather than in one place, and we’re all addicted to change.  We make terrible employees, terrible girl/boyfriends, and sometimes really shit friends, because we get bored easily and we will always leave.  I feel like we’re a good time (not a long time!).  Sometimes I think we’re frivolous, ridiculous: but there’s nothing like the feeling of waking up in the morning and not knowing what’s going to happen, of what you’re going to see, of who you’re going to meet.  There’s the constant possibility that helps balance against the loneliness and shallowness of our lives.  Not shallow in terms of materialism or of experience, of course, but shallow in that we’re rootless.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Waffle over: I’m going to go and find some air con!


Sebastian’s post here.