I just sat on a wall overlooking the city of Cartagena for two hours, doing absolutely nothing. And that’s how I know that I’m me again. Three and a half months after leaving Russia, I’ve finally relaxed, and relaxed enough to think.
On this occasion, I was thinking about home. And going there. And what on earth it is. In two weeks’ time, I’m due to fly back to Australia: a place I don’t want to be. And what I realised, sitting on that wall, is that I don’t know how I can ever go back. It’s like Colombia’s travel slogan: ‘the only risk is that you’ll never want to leave.’
Of course, it’s not just leaving Colombia that’s the problem. It’s the where to go to. I’m going back to Aus because [pauses for several minutes while trying to figure it out] —I guess because I don’t need a visa to work there. It’s easy in that respect, and after Russia I needed easy. I needed to go and live somewhere for a while, to feel stable for a while, I guess to steady myself. I’ve also run out of money—minor problem!
When I was still in Russia, I said to my friends that I wanted to go back and buy an apartment, maybe stay for 3-5 years before finally moving back to Europe properly. When I got to the UK I revised that: I missed UK-home so much that when a friend suggested I apply to Cambridge’s Public Policy program, I saw a way back in, and changed my plans accordingly. But now I just don’t know. I don’t know if I can go and stay somewhere for a while, or even to live in a country with so many rules. I don’t have many options—if I want to keep travelling, I have to give up on having an actual job, and go back to the mindless or short-term jobs that make me angry due to the lack of mental stimulation. And I am not being an English teacher again: much as my students are like family to me, the job itself (read: EF) drove me crazy.
It’s not just the job thing though. While being out of Russia and being in the company of men again has satisfied me (NOT word-play!!) to some extent, I do actually have room for somebody else in my life. Granted, I have some commitment issues (Like me? I’ll leave the state, if not the country. Don’t like me? I’ll follow you anywhere!), but to be fair that also applies to all other aspects of my life (as indicated by the number of plan changes you’ll have seen in this blog).
They say that ‘home is where the heart is’, but I have no idea where that is. I know Australia’s not home to me, much as my values reflect where I was brought up. And what does ‘where the heart is’ even mean? It can’t be physical, but how can it possibly be anything else? I love so many people all over the world, and I’ve left pieces of my heart everywhere: there’s no way they can ever be united in one place. The more I travel, the more this becomes the case.
I’ve said before that I don’t get nostalgic, and I don’t miss people. They’re the same thing I suppose. What’s nostalgia, but wanting times and things and places and people that can never be brought back? Once something’s happened, it’s only alive in our memory. Whenever you get back to where you were, things have changed, people have changed. It’s then a matter of getting to know them again, or of creating new memories: and this can be done on the road. Once you leave shore, things can never be the same.
And I suppose that’s it, really. As a traveller, you have to live in the moment—because you can never go home again.
I must say, my boobs have been man-handled more in the last four days than in the preceding year. In the most innocent of ways, of course ;).
I remember I was talking to a French guy in Helsinki and he was appalled that Finnish people have business meetings. In the sauna. While they’re naked. I said to him that “for all French guys have this reputation, you’re a bit uptight, aren’t you?”
In some ways, nudity is kind of a privilege while travelling. Privacy is, anyway, at least in hostels. Obviously you share a room, and the bathrooms aren’t usually much more enclosed. I’ve never been especially modest, but by now I’m completely indifferent to getting changed in front of people of either gender: it’s more their sensibilities I’m concerned about.
I don’t necessarily feel the same way about random people touching me. At least, until I went to the Turkish Baths in Istanbul last year, and ended up naked on a stone slab, while some other almost-naked lady rubbed a jar of honey into my body. Now I just go with whatever.
There’s a Dutch guy in my hostel room, Peter, and we discovered that we both wanted to go snorkelling, so we decided to go to Playa Blanca (White Beach) yesterday. I’ve actually never met a Dutch person who hasn’t been a reasonable human being, which is I guess how I end up in the Netherlands so often. Anyway, he suggested that we get up at 8:30 or some such and head off. Fortuitously, I got up way earlier, and at 8:30 went to go and ask at the front desk what time we could catch the bus to PB? The guy said “right now”. And he did not look like he was joking. It turns out it’s a full day-trip by boat, and the last one leaves at 9am. Much scurrying ensued.
We picked up an Englishman, Angus, and a Portuguese girl, Rita (I thanked her and Peter for having rhyming names, making it easier for me to remember) on the way. We then jumped onto the boat and it was freaking fantastic. Water is totally my element, and zooming across it was superb.
Upon arrival at the beach, we went snorkelling for a bit. It was pretty cool, I saw some nice fish and a huge lobster. In saying that, I did my Open Water course on the Great Barrier Reef, so I have been somewhat spoiled as far as fish go.
We had a little hut on the beach (yesterday became rather outrageously gouge-y as far as wallets went), so post-swim went and chilled there. At some point, a man with a wheelbarrow full of coconuts and alcohol rolled up, and I couldn’t resist. I didn’t have my camera though (shock!!) so the photo of me in complete beach-bum mode with pina colada-filled cocktail will have to wait. Next, ladies offering massages rolled up. Apparently they were very literal with the ‘whole body’ description (boob molestation #1).
Post-lunch, it was more swimming, chilling and day-dreaming. To be honest, I’m not really made for sitting on a beach. Running around/playing sport on it, yes. Swimming, yes. Sailing, hells yes. But inactivity frustrates me. Nonetheless, it was pleasant.
In the evening we headed to an old wall along the sea-coast, to watch the sunset:
We stopped by Cafe del Mar for a moment, as in doing my running-off thing and dragging Rita along with me, we’d lost the guys. Then it was pretty much dinner and bed.
This morning I got up early to check-out. Luckily (?!?) I’d woken up at 2am and had never been able to go back to sleep again, so that was fairly easily achieved. I then went on a trip to a nearby volcano, Volcan de Lodo El Totumo. After a couple of hours of sitting on the bus as we picked up all of the other people in the city, we went on out.
Wiki’s just told me that according to local folk-lore, the volcano used to be full of the normal volcano-y stuff: ashes, lava, action heroes. Then a local priest transformed it to mud by sprinkling some holy water into it. Seems a little dubious to me. The holy water part, not the action heroes (of course). It’s quite small, with a fabulous view of a lake and wetlands from the top. You climb in, lower yourself down into the super-dense mud, and then the attendants give you a ‘massage’. I use these ones ” because it’s not so much a massage as them slopping you with mud (molestation #2). As I’m sure you’ve gathered, today’s featured image is from the volcano.
After you’ve had enough of playing in the mud, you endeavour the slippery climb out then jaunt on down to the lake. There, women grab you by the hand and sit you down in the water, and help you wash the mud off. Haha unexpectedly, they also took all of our clothes off. Sudden nudity! And, needless to say, molestation #3 took place.
I’m now back at the hostel in Cartagena, and in about an hour will head to the airport for my flight to Medellin. All of the inactivity is starting to drive me a little cuckoo, so I’m looking forward to a big night out and then a few as-active-as-possible days there. And let’s see if I can keep my clothes on, this time.
Firstly, it has to be said that Medellin is a staggeringly beautiful city. I met some Canadian guys in the airport in Cartagena, and happily they were able to afford a taxi (and a bonus Australian) from the airport into Medellin that night. And the views were absolutely amazing. I think the closest I can compare it to is an experience I had when I was 18, when I helped on a delivery trip, taking a yacht from Mooloolaba to Airlie Beach in Australia. We were lucky to have long watch shifts, so at night time it was sleep 3 hours, watch 3 hours, and repeat. On this one particular occasion, it’s night-time, and the other watchman and I are listening to A Perfect Circle’s “Thirteenth Step” album. Hm you should probably listen to a track while visualising this.
Anyway, so we’re miles off-shore. All we can hear is the music, the creaking of the sails, and the swishing of the water. All we can smell is salt, and of course it’s pitch black. We could see the stars and the barest hints of reflections on the waves around us, with all else darkness. In that area, there’s a lot of phosphorescence in the water, so wherever there’s movement, the sea lights up. Some dolphins came to join us, swimming by the bow, and it was like dolphin-shaped stars in the water, reflecting those above. And that’s what Medellin looks like at night-time: as if a star has fallen and splashed a million pin-points of light all over the valley. Day-time has a different effect, though no less beautiful: the innumerable terracotta-coloured huts all crammed together look like nothing so much as a bunch of brave little crabs clinging to the slopes.
After we wound our way into the valley and I made it to my hostel, it was straight to the supermarket for some alcohol and then getting ready for a night out. It was already 9pm or so and I was quite tired after the volcano etc, but how often in your life are you in Medellin on a Saturday night? At first I talked to some German girls who were going out, but they were a bit… ‘low-key’. Haha I do nothing by halves, and when I decide to go out, it’s definitely a case of ghogh (go hard or go home): low-key is just not on. Next I found some Israelis (purportedly renowned for their similar attitude in this respect), and the night seriously picked up. I went out with them (a brother and sister—Tommy and Mickey, respectively), two Brits and an Italian-Swiss man. I think we had others floating in and out at various points.
My night was hilarious, and infinitely better than most nights out in Aus. We stayed in one bar the whole night, and when we paid the cover we were given a card to exchange for a free drink. I asked AK, one of the Brits, why I had a naked lady in my hand, and he explained to me that it’s ‘that kind of place’, then proceeded to try and convince me that girls were expected to make out in this particular venue. Nice try, mate.
My general rule of sticking to vodka didn’t work out particularly well once we arrived. I ended up in a round of tequila with the Israelis and the Swiss guy, but wouldn’t let them drink until I’d explained my favourite Russian tradition. That is, before you do a shot, you have to make a toast to something good that’s happened: Tommy tried to get away with toasting to ‘life’ but I quickly shot him down. Hahaha his next call was to ‘good sex’ and we could hardly say no! My toast later on was to getting caught in the tropical rain :).
The music, to start with, was very eclectic. It was a weird mix of Colombian and really random Western music: so soon enough, I found myself sambaing to Metallica with a Colombian man. I, never having learned any kind of Latino dancing, decided to follow ‘Shakira’s Rules for Life’ (being that ‘hips don’t lie’), and used it as my guiding philosophy in figuring out the whole thing. It worked surprisingly well, apart from one incredibly awkward dance with an Argentine man.
Soon after Metallica finished, I found myself next to a Colombian holding a bottle of something anonymous, shot glasses, and an epic cup of chaser. He offered me a shot, and being that no adventures start with ‘no’, I accepted. I had a couple more from him later on as well, but it was terrible, really: he was incredibly morose, as if he were wrapped around in dark clouds, so I couldn’t bring myself to engage him in conversation. So I was ‘that girl’. (I did get the people I was with to keep an eye on me post-drink btw, in case of spikage).
In AK’s words, I really stuck out in the crowd: I was the only blonde in there. Later on, two blond guys arrived and so naturally I high-fived each of them for hair colour representation. It also meant a ridiculous amount of attention. I think my favourite sequence of sentences all night was from two Colombian men who looked as if they were joined at the hip they were so eagerly jumping over each other. They went, “Why you so beautiful?”, before following up with “you had kids yet?”. When I said “no”, they did a massive fist pump and went “wow“. It was fucking hilarious. I couldn’t help but wonder why they wanted to know if I’d had kids—I was like… birth canal?! Priceless.
By this time I’d found the rhythm for the Colombian music and was having a freaking awesome time dancing, Sadly, soon enough it was 3am and closing time (why so early?!), though tbh I was already exhausted. I thought to myself that at this rate, my lower half’s going to be so muscular from all of the dancing and walking I’ve been doing, that it’ll walk off one day leaving my upper body flailing around by itself. Anyway, the Israeli guy was not ready to go, and somehow started some kind of strange clapping dance with a whole bunch of Latinos which went on for about half an hour, firstly in the club then on the street. We were home by around 4 or 4:30 though.
I woke up a few hours later and couldn’t get back to sleep, so decided to go on an adventure—so I headed off to Guatape, first stop La Piedra. This is a giant rock in the middle of stunning countryside, from the top of which I’d heard there was a good view. It took me a few hours to get there, and as usual, everybody was very helpful. (With the exception of one guy who was on the road as I started walking from the bus stop: he was seriously fucking creepy. Obviously I have little idea what he was saying, but he was talking in the rapiest tone, walking all around me appraising me as though I were a horse, and licking his lips lasciviously. I was more than happy to out-distance him.)
In the car-park, I came across a girl called Carolina who spoke English, and she was nice enough to take some photos with me in them. Then it was time for the 700+ step ascent.
The view from the top:
When I was finally done with the rock, I started my descent and bumped into Carolina once more, so we had a good chat. I was later walking down toward the road when she and her family pulled over and offered me a ride back to Medellin. I was torn, as I’d heard Guatape was unmissable. She said that it was, but that I should be careful to get out of there before night-time. She then realised I had the intention of walking there (<1hr), and flagged down an electric car for me (tbh I was very happy to not walk past the creepy guy again). She was honestly so helpful: just like every Colombian, as I’ve said before.
Guatape was indeed very nice: it’s where I took today’s featured image. A couple of hours later though, it was time to catch the last bus back to Medellin, and so I headed off. When I reached the metro, I waited in line for around 20 minutes to buy a ticket, only to find out it didn’t work. So the guard sent me back to the window to swap it over (you can imagine the miming involved), then I waited in line for the barrier gates again. At which point, my new ticket didn’t work. A gorgeous black guy who’d seen at least the last half of this process then gave me his ticket, grabbed mine, and went back to the ticket window instead of me. SO SO NICE!!!
On Sunday I caught a cable-car over Medellin’s slums to overlook the city, meeting a lot of lovely people in the process. One man commented on how much he liked my tattoo (this happens a lot), and the next thing you know I’m talking with a bunch of Colombians with his translation assistance.
I had some time to kill before my walking tour began (I’m talking about that in an entry by itself), so went to the botanical gardens. It was full of groups of school children, and I kept finding myself in clouds of kids and teens teaching me Spanish, saying hello, and asking to be in photos with me. Haha I’m in photos with strangers all over the world, it’s pretty funny.
After the walking tour, I went back to the hostel to grab my stuff then headed straight for the bus station, in order to catch the overnight coach to Bogota. Horrible idea. Horrible, horrible idea. Granted, I saved some money, but. You read all of these reviews about how cold the buses are, and even though I’m a human heater I was freezing. I’d had enough foresight to take some thermals onto the bus just in case, and at around 3am ended up stripping off in the aisle so that I could put them on under my clothes: and it was still nigh on unbearable. The chairs are also entirely lacking any kind of lumbar support, and mine squeaked with every tiny jolt in the road (of which there were many). In my exhausted mental state, I felt like the squeaks were the sound of the sadistic chair laughing at my inability to sleep, and foolhardiness in catching the bus.
I’m now back at Laura’s house in Chia and will be here for around another 36 hours before heading off to the Amazon for 5 days (hells yes!). I’ll try to get the walking tour entry done tomorrow, it should be a good’un. In the waffliest of ways, of course. 🙂
“Guys, is it very important that you understand what the fuck has been happening here the last sixty years,” said our tour guide. I was on the free walking tour in Medellin, and our guide Pablo was about to explain Colombia’s history in a nut-shell. Not, might I add, an easy thing to do. When I told my students in Russia that I was going to Colombia, they were worried about me: it’s clearly a place under the duress of massive stigma and a culture of misunderstanding.
I am in love with Latino writing, and more specifically their use of magical realism. The first book in the style I ever read was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and it was so vivid that I feel like I can still taste the chilli, smell the chocolate, and see the sister running off with her lover on horse-back. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous writers in the field, and it was only actually last week that I learned he was Colombian. He’s from a small coastal town, which has a completely different culture to that in Medellin: but nonetheless, I can understand how magical realism started in Colombia. It’s in every minute of every day.
Medellin became rich thanks to a railroad, built on the back of 250 years of gold mining. As in Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was the arrival of the train that changed everything. Suddenly, a previously inaccessible world was opened up, with drastic social and economic consequences. Subsistence became industry, and with the ‘discovery’ of coffee by the West in the mid-1800s, export brought money into the country. The train was almost literally an engine of progress, and it would later be another locomotive—in the form of Medellin’s metro system—that helped to keep peoples’ heads above water during drug cartel domination. It’s a matter of great pride for the city, and as Pablo pointed out, the metro itself is spotlessly clean. It almost feels unused. The announcements over the loud-speaker are also atypical, my favourite being “Smiling is good for the soul. There is always a reason to smile. And it is part of the metro culture.” Medellin’s is the only metro system in the country, and really is a symbol of hope.
Pablo later told us about the deaths of 22,000 civilian deaths in 1985. “The left took justice and raped it, then the right took justice and raped it, then one week later nature took it and slapped it in the face.” Most of the deaths were due to an earthquake, which followed clashes between guerrillas and government forces in Bolivar Square (Bogota) by barely a week. Listening to him describe it, I was reminded of ‘Bloody Sunday’, a day in Russia’s history where ~1000 civilians were killed or injured by the Tsar’s forces in Palace Square, St Petersburg. It struck me, not for the first time, that human history is one of violence, while all of the great love stories are lies. Happily, however, Colombians don’t think like that: instead, they forget. Hence, you have these strange contradictions between a country which is still in civil war and an incredibly happy populace; one wasted and helpless man being searched by police in the square while his companion unconcernedly and involvedly blows bubbles in the air next to him.
But what of the drugs? Colombians must love cocaine, right? We all know that it comes from here, and a lot of tourists come here for that reason: surely they bring money into the country. In Pablo’s words, “the only thing we owe drugs is pain, blood, suffering and stigma.” As a man named Pablo from Medellin, he’s inevitably searched whenever he travels, but it’s not just that. There’s the fact that for every 1 gram of coke produced, 4 square metres of rainforest is destroyed. Moreover, it’s coke that has fuelled the violence in this country. What was once a conflict between Left and Right (and don’t forget, this is against the backdrop of the Cold War, and nearby Cuba had just switched to Communism) became all-out guerrilla war-fare when drug cartels played one side against the other in order to protect their crops. That in turn brought money, which only served to escalate the conflict further. Hundreds of thousands have died in the war which has been ongoing since 1964, most of them civilians.
And what of religion? Surely Colombians are devout Catholics? Not quite: “in Colombia, religion is used as soap. Get your hands dirty, then go and get some soap.” We saw this with our own eyes, with one church surrounded by wasted sex workers, and another with back-alleys full of porn.
Happily, however, things are changing for Colombia. More and more areas are becoming safe, tourists are starting to come, and people no longer have to be afraid of assassination while in their own homes. Part of this is thanks to education: in Medellin, libraries have been built in the middle of slums. Our ever-eloquent tour guide explained that they are the “needle of the slums”, and that they’re serving to lance away many of the problems faced. Today’s featured image is from the ‘city of light’: a massive stand of tall lights by a library in the centre of the city, which only 15 years ago was too dangerous to go into.
When I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was who. Everybody was either Jose or Aureliano, and it covers six generations. After a while, the individuality of each of the characters was blurred, and what became important was the cycles of history, and moreover the cumulative events that occurred. Rather than dwelling on individual tragedies, instead it became this build-up of progressively fantastical events, until the minor happinesses and obsessions of each character all join together to create this vibrant tapestry which is beyond life itself: and that’s how Colombia feels to me. Pablo said that “I think we Colombians forget on purpose,” and it seems almost as if this creates the blurring featured in Marquez’ book. Rather than remember the massacres and warfare, assassinations and fear, Colombia’s history instead becomes a montage of minor World Cup victories, of winning stages of the Tour de France, of saving itself, and a metro that represents it all. It’s ultimate magical realism, wherein the good things are divine moments, and the rest is subsumed by comparison.
By now, I’ve talked several times about the hot/cold country dichotomy, and peoples’ theories about how the weather influences your personality. Sigh. I give in!—there might be something to it. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my Russian posts were inevitably acerbic, whereas here in Colombia I’ve become almost unbearably loquacious. I’ve gone back to writing poetry, for goodness’ sake: so apologies for the recent massive stylistic change!
I obviously didn’t take my laptop into the middle of the Amazon with me, and instead took notes for the blog while I was there. Rookie error. I’ve just typed the notes up (my writing’s actually that execrable that if I didn’t do it while I could still remember what my notes were vaguely about, I wouldn’t be able to read them)—and it’s three pages. Part of that is because, oddly enough, my Amazon experience was markedly different in a lot of ways to the things I’ve done before, and as I spent a lot of the trip with indigenous people, there was a lot to learn and write about. So again, please forgive me as I write the world’s most epic blog posts in the most unnecessarily verbose of ways.
Access to the Amazon in Colombia is via a small city and ex-military base called Leticia, in the south-eastern corner of the country where Colombia, Peru and Brazil intersect. Access is par avion only. I slept for most of the flight, only waking ten minutes before touch-down: upon which I immediately got involved in an intense discussion about policy, public-private partnerships and corporate ideology with the Amerikanets next to me. We kept talking even as the plane hit the ground and rolled to the airport. It’s weird: when I was 18 and started travelling, it felt like everyone was about my age. Now I’m 28 and find the same thing: and even though I’m no longer working in a law firm/corporate environment, still everyone I speak to is a lawyer/politician/banker/etc. It’s, been, great. See? It’s not like all travellers are drop-kicks who are writing off their lives—there’s also a cadre of super-intelligent people who aren’t challenged enough in daily life.
I casually booked my Amazon trip through a company called Borugo. The owner, Alejandro, dealt quite well with the fact that I hadn’t paid him any money, given him any credit card details, and didn’t in fact book my flights until the day before departure. There were no tours already running, so it was just me, a native guide, and a translator. The translator Guillermo, a linguistics student, met me with a sign at the airport, and then it was off to Alejandro’s house to sort out itinerary, payment and so on.
Alejandro’s house had a distinct air of Colombianness. Living in rainbow-land as I do, I couldn’t help but imagine the place full of cigars, shady deals and intrigue. (I think a Cuban element slunk in with the cigars). We were there for a bit, thence to a cafe for lunch, where we saw a girl who looked exactly like Kirsten Dunst. It made me think about disappearing, as I often do: and certainly, if you wanted to hide from the world, a far-flung corner of Colombia would be the place to do it.
Next it was waiting for Guillermo (henceforth ‘Bambi’) and the boat-driver to arrive. Then it was waiting some more, over coffee. Then finally we got into a small boat, to head to the main boat pontoon (where we waited again for an hour or so). It was a very slow day, and very much running on Colombian time.
Finally, a boat arrived to take us a couple of hours up the river (yes, the Amazon), to a town called Puerto Nariño. We went straight to a sort-of conservation museum, Natutama, where we learned about the animals of the river. Happily, it was one of the few times I didn’t need Bambi to translate for me: animals I can cope with. Stories, however, I can’t, and we heard quite a few myths of the local indigenous people on the trip.
The first of these stories was how the moon came to be in the sky. Back in the day, there was a man in the local tribe who had exceptionally white teeth, and he was very vain about it. The other people in the tribe asked him how come he had such white teeth, but he would never tell them. Then one day, his sister followed him into the jungle, and saw him eating from a very special plant. She figured out that’s what was making his teeth so shiny, and she cut it down.
However, that’s not all there was to it. Our white-toothed friend wasn’t just vain: he was also in love with his sister, and stalking her. She knew that someone was watching her, and so one night she hatched a plan. She put some dye from a special staining plant on her hands and pretended to go to sleep. When she sensed that there was someone above her, watching her, she leaped up and quickly put the dye on their face.
The brother, startled, ran away until he came to a lake. There, he looked down and saw his reflection, and was aghast to find that he had dye on his face: and it just wouldn’t come off. He knew that he couldn’t return to his village, as everybody would know he had been stalking his sister (and plus, he was too vain to return while so disfigured). Hence, he ran away to live in the jungle.
One day, while crying piteously, a bird swooped down and asked what the matter was. He said that he couldn’t return to his village, that he just wanted to run away, and the bird agreed to help him. The bird advised the man that there was a very tall, hollow tree in the forest, and that he should climb it until he reached the top.
That’s just what the man did: he found the tree, and climbed and climbed and climbed, for what seemed like forever. At long long last, his head popped out, and he found that he had climbed so high, he was among the stars: and that’s where he lives today. His face, with the shameful dye from his sister’s hands, can still be seen in the night sky in the form of the moon.
After story-time, Guillermo and I walked through the town to find our hotel for the evening. It was utterly rustic in its charm, having that torbidly romantic air of a 1930s novella: I felt that if I only opened the door, I’d find myself amidst the heavy glamour of Egyptian ruins, or of some other exotic location. Which, I suppose, I would.