The Lost City: Green Hell

At a bright and early 4.30am, we woke up to finally head to the Lost City, which was a mere few kilometres away.  Of course, I say ‘woke up’, but in actuality the beds were so uncomfortable that my back had been in too much pain to sleep during the night, so let’s call it hyperbole.  Definitely not the most comfortable accommodation, but beggars can’t be choosers!

On that note, I’d read online that it wasn’t possible to do the Ciudad Perdida trail without a guide.  I think that the trail itself is easy enough, with not many opportunities to get lost; however, you’re not allowed to camp in the park, and without a guide, I don’t know how you’d have access to food or accommodation.  So perhaps put the idea out of your mind…

The foot of the 1200 steps up to the city started just a kilometre from where we were staying, so we reached them in short order, a bit after 6am.  And it turns out that the ancient peoples of the area took their staircases pretty seriously.  It consisted of not only many, many steps, but made of often slippery mountain stone.  They were steep, and of varied sizes–coming down later in the day saw us walking sideways to try and fit our feet and minimise falls.

Reaching the top, the first terraces of the city began to unveil themselves.  The remains were in circular shapes, as they formed the formations of ancient houses–which, like those we’d seen the day before, consisted largely of mud and palm fronds.

The city was ‘lost’ for a good 400 years, from the arrival of the Spanish, until 1976.  With the Spanish and the diseases they brought to the country, some 80% of the population were wiped out.  Initially relations were friendly, but as the Spanish conquest became more aggressive in their search for land and tradable goods, things became more antagonistic.

The city was rediscovered by looters, who found the foot of the stairs when they shot a bird and were looking for its carcass.  That’s kind of amazing, if you think about it–I mean, granted, you had loot in mind, but then the foot of this gigantic staircases appears behind some trees, and goes up, and up, and up.  Then you reach the top to discover not just a town like the other 199 discovered to date in the area, but a full city, with facades, houses, agriculture, and what our guide referred to as a ‘discotech’!

The father and son began digging into the centre of each of the houses, looking for riches–and riches they found.  They then carted them back to Santa Marta to sell, but drunk on their finds and on, you know, alcohol, they were a bit loose-lipped about the find.  This led to further groups of grave-robbers and looters trying to find the location, and fierce competition led to murders and assaults between groups.  Later, a deal was struck between the Museo del Oro in Bogotá (which I’ve written about previously) and the robbers, such that each would split the finds 50-50.

You might be wondering why the grave-robbers began digging into the centre of each of the houses to find treasure.  As it turns out, the people had a two-stage burial process when somebody died: the first stage was to bury them in the foetal position with a liana tied around them and surrounded by their important treasures.  After a while, the mamu would tug the liana to see if it came out cleanly, and then they would know that the body had been reduced to bones.  Once this happened, the bones and treasures would be gathered into a bowl, and buried in the centre of the person’s house.  Ergo, the strategy.

The Lost City, la Ciudad Perdida, was originally known as the ‘green hell’, due to the difficulty and danger in reaching it.  Later, it became the slightly more tourist-friendly ‘lost city’.  It also has an official name with archaeologists, which is the name of the nearby river + ‘200’, as the two hundredth settlement discovered in the valleys.  It’s thought that the original name may have been Tayuna, for ‘earth mother’, and to be honest, that name just feels right for the place.

We started climbing the terraces, finding more and more spectacular views.  The city itself is wondrous enough, but the location itself is breath-taking.  There are views of a beautiful waterfall tumbling down the mountains, verdant valleys all around, and luscious greenery as far as the eye could see.

In leaving, we headed around the side of the hill, rather than taking the ‘VIP’ entrance as previously.  Here we saw the remains of male and female huts, plus some local plants, including one which our guide Miguel used to turn his hands purple.  (He was demonstrating the use of the plant, it just had a fortuitous side effect :).)

Descending the treacherous stairs once more, we headed back to where we’d stayed the night for some lunch; then it was back on the road, to camp Wiwa, where we’d had lunch the previous day.  This involved going back down the hill which had just about killed all of us the previous day, and the going down was by itself easier; a huge bonus was the fact that a few of us were able to send our packs down to the camp by mule, for a measely three euro.  It was a bit of a no-brainer!

We’re now at Wiwa, where a few of the others have just been swimming at a nearby waterfall.  At this point I’m more excited about a shower and some food–not to mention bed!  For the next two days, we’ll be heading back to the start, which should be comparatively easy-going in comparison to today and yesterday.

On that note, our distances haven’t been huge, though they’ve been very hilly (and steppy!).  On the first day we walked 12.2 kilometres; yesterday it was 19.1; and today it’s been 20.6.  We definitely deserve our dinner :).

Grad School

Well, I am currently in Russian class, which is today being exceptionally and exclusively delivered in Dutch.  Needless to say, I have no idea what’s going on—so after a rather protracted break, voici—a blog post!

I handed in my final piece of work for my Masters course nearly a month ago now.  Already.  I don’t even know how that happened.  It seems max four months ago that I was sitting in my course convenor’s office, giggling uncontrollably because I was so excited to start!!  (Yup, I’m that student.)  The last six months in particular were spectacular—in terms of my subjects, in terms of writing my papers, and in terms of writing my dissertation as an experience.  Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to have some truly awesome professors at the school.

Grad school is very different in Europe to in Australia, I think.  I don’t know that many people who have done it in Australia, for a start.  It’s not really necessary.  But here, everyone gets their Masters—there’s no question about it; it’s a market necessity.  In countries such as Germany you can do it for free, and here in Belgium it’s 800 euro a year (if you’re not at a British university, which I am).  This leads to a couple of peculiarities.  For one, a huge number of people seem to do their Masters without any actual interest in the subject area whatsoever.  It’s not about ‘mastering’ something, it’s about getting a piece of paper in order to start life.  To me this seems problematic for several reasons—firstly, people are expending a lot of time and capital in getting a qualification which they are not interested in, while simultaneously ‘education inflation’ means that a Masters degree will lead only to a couple of years of free internships before being considered for a paid job.  It becomes an entry-level qualification, or even a sub-entry qualification.  Secondly (thirdly?), there’s this idea of ‘paying for a piece of paper’.  Even though my school is way more expensive than the others in the region (again, British university :/), this is something which has been said to me a few times.  I have one guy in mind, who during his first semester bragged about not doing a single reading, didn’t participate in class (when he showed up at all), and just wants to ‘scrape through’ like he ‘did in his undergrad’, because at the end of the day the bit of paper is all that matters.  What kind of heresy is that?!  And yet these are the people with whom I am competing in the jobs market—and in fact they, in many if not all cases, have an advantage, because while they may not have actually learned anything, they are EU citizens and usually at least bilingual.  But they just don’t care !!!  Aaaagh!!!

Frustrations aside however, my course has been absolutely fantastic.  In writing my last round of papers, I couldn’t help but think what an incredible privilege it is—to do nothing but study for a protracted period of time, and to conduct investigations and write papers on topics in which we’re interested.  I mean, how much further from subsistence living can you get?  Education is such a magical and rewarding thing, and I’m so glad (/amazed/in awe) that it’s something I’ve had access to.  As a woman particularly, there are so many times in human history in which this would not have been open to me—relatively recent times.  And even now, in countries all over the world, it’s not a possibility.  So yeah.  I feel lucky.  Really, really lucky.

As to what’s next, well—the eternal question!  I’m still flip-flopping between going straight on to do a PhD, and returning to work.  I think I’m tilting slightly towards the latter, but we’ll see.  And, after all, I have time to think about it: in the morning, I’m flying out of Bxl, and I’ll be spending the next few weeks walking 500km along the Spanish coast.  I’ll then be spending some time in Madrid with Nastya (who has now moved from Wales to Spain with her family), before coming back to start whatever it is I’m doing next.  Ah, how glad I am that ‘direction’ is over-rated…



Alright, so it’s nearly two months since I left Russia.  It’s probably just about time to finish writing about it!  This time, I’m writing not from Vertical Germany, but from sunny Italia, where I’m not allowing myself to do anything fun until I get a solid amount of work done on the new anthology.  We’re just over two months from release date (ohmygod ohmygod panic attack), and there’s rather a lot of editing to be done.

Since leaving Russia, I’ve been a very busy girl—first it was summer school, then a model UN at the EU External Action Service (turns out I make a great Juncker), then being very sick.  Following this was a trip to Amsterdam, my 30th, and party prep and recovery taking nearly a week (I was a mermaid of the variety that drinks like a fish—I had a Disney theme ;)).  Then editing, then the book club went viral and I had to build a shiny new website in double-time, then I quit the book club in a torrent of flames, and then suddenly I was here.  Of course, I’ve had quite a few adventures, both in Brussels and now here in Italy, so it’s about time I kicked into the back-log… and stopped procrastinating via opening paragraphs.  Also, this post will touch on my one hour in Latvia down the bottom 🙂

After working far too hard in St Petersburg, I decided I needed a holiday from my holiday, and booked trains for another long weekend back in Moscow.  On the way there, I elected to take the day train, and was seated opposite a man who smelled distinctly of beer.  This only increased as the trip went on, given the amount he was consuming with his friends.  I was quite tired and aiming for a nap—but, as it turns out, my seat had the powerpoint for the 40-person carriage.  So after a number of times being shoved out of the way so that people could plug things in, and people getting a bit feisty with each other over whose turn it was, I decided to apply some organisation.  I arranged a queue, and guarded people’s stuff while it was there.  Yup.  The carriage named me “наша девушка на розетке”/nasha devushka na rozetke/Our Girl of the Powerpoint.  Glamour, right??

The train paused at one point at a work site, presumably so that goods could be loaded and unloaded.  Looking out the window, I saw that everyone was brown—and I don’t mean tanned (though that, too).  Everybody working on the site, ie doing manual labour, was from the Caucasus.  There were no ‘white Russians’.  It made me ponder something Arthur said when I was in Moscow a few weeks prior, that in Russia everything is equal—it doesn’t matter what your race is or what your gender is, you will still have the same work opportunities.  I absolutely maintain that this is complete and utter bullshit, but hey.  Whatever sees him through the day.  Being at this random site some few hours outside Moscow really hammered it home: you get used to seeing black Russians in lower-level and manual labour roles, but here it was just somehow stark.

Again on this topic, at Gostiniy Dvor station in St Petersburg, there are these big security archways.  They’re off to one side, and I’d always figured they were broken, like a lot of the stuff in that metro station seems to be.  I’d always just cruised through the station, gone to buy my zhetony if necessary, then walked through the barriers without really thinking about it.  Until one time on this trip, when a Chinese-looking dude walked into the station just ahead of me.  A cloud of guards descended upon him, yelling at him to take off his bag, turn out his pockets, and walk through the security barrier.  They then took him off to some room for goodness-knows-what.  I mean this was just some random, harmless-looking dude, and there’s no way they didn’t do that because of what he looked like.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I once invited a Korean girl to a party I had in Piter, and despite her having been living there for over a year at that point, she said it was the first time Russians had actually spoken to her.  Or again, I kissed a distinctly non-Russian guy in Moscow, and the looks of disgust and abhorrence on people’s faces.  One guy mimed spitting on the floor, while others shuddered and turned away.  It made me want to passive-aggressive the shit out of them, to be honest.  We weren’t doing anything horrible.

I spent this trip to Moscow hanging with some people I’d met the previous time, eating far too much Japanese at Две Палочки (as always), watching comedy, and SEEING JURASSIC WORLD 3D!!!  TWICE!!!!  YEAHHHHHH!!!!  Man I love dinosaurs.  After the first time watching it, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to speak in lower case letters, ever, ever again.  I went the first time with Arthur and his Kiwi friend Lisa (who will reappear in this blog later on… hello, foreshadowing!), then that night at the bar, was so excited about it that I ended up going with someone else from there the following day.  I must say, I felt a little queasy the first time I saw raptors (those familiar with my other work will know why), but then it was just 5000 kinds of awesome.  And THERE’S GOING TO BE TWO MORE FILMS.  Yes!!!

Following my trip to Moscow, I ended up working for a lovely tiny school just south of the centre for a couple of weeks.  It was called English Effect, and was the first company I’ve worked for in Russia where everybody was nice.  And normal.  It was completely stress-free (:o!!!).  I also continued editing, and of course, attending Translator Tuesdays at Eclectic.  On one occasion, I went to coffee with a Russian girl who goes to Eclectic’s drinks.  She was talking about her travels through Europe, and how shocked she was by the children in France.  She couldn’t believe how happy and free they were, compared to what she described as ‘grumpy Russian children’.  Another classic line was when she told someone off because she described their ideas as “so Stalinist, so bourgeoisie”.  I’m not totally convinced this is a consistent insult, but in what other country would you hear that?  Hysterical.

Overall, I definitely saw some changes in Russia over the course of this trip.  I mentioned in a previous post that people seemed way happier than last time.  But in addition to this, they were even dressed differently—Stalinist-bourgeoisie girl explained it via the ‘hipster movement’.  I’m not really sure what this is meant to mean, given people dress neither like the ‘hipsters’ in the hit Russian film Стиляги/Stilyagi/Hipsters (watch it, it’s brilliant), nor like the modern Australian version.  But whatever it is, it includes a lot less fur coat + high heels + a bucket of makeup.  And the 80s-ness of fashion seems to have cut down a bit, too, at least in the (admittedly major) cities I went to.

Next, there has also been a massive improvement in food.  I’m far from a foodie, but this time it didn’t actually taste like crap.  THIS IS HUGE.  And not only that, but there are increasingly vegetarian options!  It’s like people might actually want vegetables.  Of course, there’s still freaking dill on everything, but I guess you can’t have everything.  One place that embodied this change in culture, cuisine, and arguably sophistication was a place called “Pitas Street Food” by Ploshad’ Vosstaniya in St Petersburg.  It had plentiful vegetarian food, everything tasted good, and it had freaking cider.  Cider!  In Russia!  And on tap :o!!!  Plus it had powerpoints at each table, an instagram printing booth, and park benches for people to sit at which lent it a somewhat art deco feel.  The crowd was very diverse, and overall it felt like a place that could easily be in Melbourne.  I couldn’t believe we were still in Russia, it was crazy!

I do of course have plans to return again, though my visa has now expired :(.  At this point I’m guessing I’ll spend next summer either in Russia (likely Moscow) or Ukraine, so we’ll see what happens.  Someone asked why I don’t look at doing my PhD in Russia rather than in Europe, and I pretty much laughed—living in Russia again is completely off the cards, in part because of ongoing intolerance, and largely because of man-woman relations there.  *Shudder*.  But it’s definitely a place I’ll continue to return to, be fascinated by, study, and write about.

Here are a couple of random photos:

My final two days in St Petersburg were spent at an EU-Russia conference, then I had to fly back on Sunday before starting summer school (on Post-Soviet conflicts… theme, anyone?!) the next day.  Well, technically that night, but I skipped it.  Such a rebel.

As it turned out, my professor was on the same flights as me, so the poor guy had to put up with me all day.  It was super handy actually, as we had a 4-hour stopover in Riga (the capital of Latvia).  He was staying in the airport to do some work, but I figured I could spend an hour in the centre and not miss my flight, so I gave him a gigantic stack of books to carry around for me and headed off.  He said my pile of books made him feel ‘intellectual’, which I found pretty hysterical, given he’s an academic.

After negotiating with a somewhat grumpy bus driver, I arrived in Riga itself.  I looked around for the nearest promising location, and spotted a gigantic building towering over the city.  I started walking toward it, given I had no idea where I was or what I was doing, and as it turned out it was a science faculty of a university.  And it was ginormous.  As such they let tourists up onto the top floor, for panoramic views of the city: win!  What’s more, from there I could see something which looked suspiciously like scenic, UNESCO-listed old buildings, so I now had my mission.

Leaving the tower I walked into the Old Centre.  It was very sweet—actually it reminded me somewhat of a cross between parts of Prague and Helsinki.  I went moseying through, stopping for some lunch (strawberry icecream—I understand nutrition!) and to browse at some of the stalls.  I also checked out some old castles and things (albeit very quickly).  Then it was back onto a bus, the finding of which was probably not so much due to my bad-ass travelling skills as to some kind of miracle, and to the airport.  With souvenirs.  It was really a power hour!

Back at the airport I tracked down my professor quite quickly, whereupon he bought me a coffee and I distracted him from work by chittering on about dinosaurs for a really protracted period of time.  Poor guy.  Poor, poor guy.

After that it was just a hop, skip and a jump, and I was back in Brussels, to my flatmates and my garden-which-was-now-a-jungle.

No Dill


Well here I am, back in vertical Germany, and finally starting to catch up on my Russia posts.  Needless to say, they’re completely out of order—but what are you going to do about it?!

Staying with Naz reminded me of all the little details about life in Russia.  She and her Belorussian bf live in an old Soviet apartment, in the Primorskiy District—partly developed, but still quite old.  There’s this ubiquitous grime covering everything, as though you’re seeing the world through a faint coffee stain.  There are the little old ladies selling flowers, the stalls with baked goods at the start of the day, the fruits and vegetables being hawked, and people wearing loudspeakers which broadcast ads at you, while their wearers bear indifferent faces.

After walking past the crying sounds of a harmonica one day, we got on the marshrutka (bus) to head into town—only to be greeted with a mouth full of gold teeth.  Not that the driver was smiling.  I think his teeth were just uncomfortable, meaning his mouth had to be propped open.  He then took us on quite the adventure—I’ve never been on a bus which did a u-turn in the middle of the street before!

It’s always quite interesting to have Naz’s South African perspective to be honest.  She describes Russia, even the cities (themselves a world away from the rest of the country), as being like the undeveloped parts of South Africa, or akin to the more dilapidated and uncared-for cities.  We started talking about different countries’ equivalents of bogans, about the trashy clothes, the bad hair, the grab and run attitude that you can’t go a day without seeing in Russia.  Incidentally, at this point I think I have to establish some kind of bogan scale, because nobody ever knows what the hell I’m talking about.  Basically, ‘bogan’ is Australian for a non-violent, opinionated person of typically low education or socio-economic status.  But I’m an idiot and didn’t make this graph 3d in order to incorporate opinions:

On a very much related note, someone peed in the lift to Naz’s flat.  The only way into the building, and someone decided it would serve better as a urinal.  And not even once, but multiple times in the week!  Eventually someone cracked and wrote “НЕ ПИСАЙТЕ В ЛИФТЕ!”, “don’t piss in the lift!”.  The next day, someone had rubbed out the не/don’t.  Next step in the battle was someone rewriting in the не, and also adding the same text in bright red on the other wall of the lift.  Who the fuck has a piss-battle over a lift?!

Anyhoo.  One of the few inconveniences associated with living in Russia is the fact that the water gets turned off in summer.  Usually just the hot water, though it could go either way.  And we’re not talking about an especially balmy country here—there are no palm fronds in sight.  Of course, the most inconvenient part is the fact that you’re not told when the water will be turned off, nor how long it will be turned off for.  Usually it’s a few weeks to just over a month, but it could really be any time.  And we don’t understand why—it’s not like other far-northern countries do this, though the Russian explanation seems to be something to do with checking the pipes.  How and what and why?!  Either way, it led to our  spending a couple of hours each day heating pots of water on the (ineffective) stove, then sploshing around in the bath scooping water over ourselves.

On one occasion Naz and I decided to go in search of a hairdresser, because washing your hair takes a fair bit of water, and doing it with freezing cold water isn’t that much fun.  After rather a number of hairdressers, we eventually found one that would wash our hair for under 1000 rubles (total rip-off), and who would let us go into the street with wet hair (though they thought we were crazy).  They were lovely, though Naz’s hairdresser was apparently pretty fond of booze, and smelled it.  Professionalism ftw!

I’m going to skip talking about dill and my hatred of it for the nth time, because it can really be summarised with (a) I hate dill (b) I always request ‘no dill’ (c) food always arrives with goddamn dill.  DILL IS DISGUSTING.

As mentioned in my post ‘Вернуться‘, I bumped into one of the managers of the brilliant Eclectic Translations in a book-store in Piter.  Eclectic is the company that did the English subtitles for Leviathan, the Yolki films, and a bazillion more—they’re brilliant.  Anyway I went to ‘Trannie’ (Translator) Tuesdays at their in-house bar a couple of times while in St Petersburg and had a fairly brilliant time drinking far too much wine.  The first time I went, I got rather unplannedly tipsy, and pretty much announced as much when walking in the door at Naz’s apartment.  She’d been expecting me, so had had water heating up on the stove for my bath.  I therefore found myself, post-vodka, sitting in an old rusty Soviet bath, washing myself in an inch or so of water, and happy as Larry.  Really all I needed was a rubber duck to complete the scene.  Naz then proceeded to take the piss out of everything, to my hysterical reaction.  My favourite line was “Fuck Zurich; I’ve never been to Switzerland, but I don’t think I like it.  Zurich poo-rich”.  Yup; much maturity was had.

I did learn one thing of particular interest, in relation to Russian border security.  One of Naz’s friends was due to come in on a cruise ship, and generally customers on a cruise apparently don’t need visas, as they are under the ‘captain’s cloak’ (ie the captain’s authority).  Not for Russia, though.  Recently the country decided to withdraw that privilege, in a fairly unprecedented (from what I gather) fashion.  So now there was a big ship full of people stuck in port.  However, in Russia there’s always a way, always a rule to be broken, always a way around.  In this case, passengers were told that as long as they booked a particular tour with a particular company (at an exorbitant price, no less), they could enter St Petersburg.  You couldn’t pay directly, though—you had to pay in euro, to a bank account in Norway.  Not sketchy.  Not sketchy at all.  (Russia never is.)