Thursday, November 5, 2009

El Fin

These past four months in Colombia were incredible. At times I grew tired of the high heat and humidity. At times, I really, really, didn't want to get up at 5:30 to go teach English in an animated fashion for a few hours. But hey - heat and sleep deprivation aside, can one really complain when there is fresh mango juice on every corner, there are at least three different beaches within busing distance, and even the citizens still in diapers have killer dance moves?

Colombia gets a lot of flack for a reputation it doesn't deserve. Everywhere I went, Colombians constantly asked me what Americans (or 'North Americans' as they call them in Colombia) think of Colombia. They laughed when I described the land of drugs, sex tourism, kidnappingm and guerrilla warfare that Americans had in mind. To those Americans who remain doubtful - Yes, there are a lot of men and women in uniform in Colombia. Yes, they are there for security reasons. No, I never felt in danger wherever I went. No, no one asked me to traffic drugs back to the United States.

Colombia's government has been on a vigorous "rebranding" spree, painting Colombia as the country of flowers, not the country of guns. Everywhere I went, I saw people with heart pins and bags or t-shirts with the phrase "Colombia es pasion." The phrase works as a response for many situations, such as:
"Why is this guava juice so amazing?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
"Why do we need to keep dancing?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
"Why won't my students just sit still and be quiet?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
But seriously, all joking aside, there is some truth to the statement. The picture in the top left corner is of a traveling dance troop that stopped in Cartagena. To me, the group epitomized the general spirit of Colombia, as well as of other countries I've visited in South America. I've found the people to be open, joyful, and eager to share their country with me. Yes, poverty is rampant throughout Colombia. Yes, prostitutes and drug dealers were certainly not far away from where I lived. My roommate got a lot of money stolen from her. We saw a student protest in Bogota with plenty of armored tanks just in case things got ugly (they didn't). These things are present in Colombia, but the country is no longer fighting the war against the FARC to the degree they once were, and militism is just one of color in the background - the country is no longer monochromatic militia green.

At the end of the day, I made some fantastic friends, saw some beautiful places, improved my Spanish, and developed a slightly unhealthy obsession for Reggaeton. Colombia is a HUGE country, and I was only beginning to experience parts of it. I will miss the people and places I knew, but I know I'll be back. It's good to be back in DC, but I know that within a month or two, I'll get the fever to jump over an international border or ocean or two. Here's to the next great adventure.

Bienvenidos a Bogota

I'd reserved the last week in Colombia for Bogota. My mom had some trepidations about my going there (probably because a friend at graduation had told us her dad thought it was THE most dangerous city to go to...excellent timing...) but everyone I'd talked to in Colombia didn't seem to have any problems there. Bottom line, I'm a smart cookie and I wasn't about to do anything stupid. I wasn't worried.

Bogota is enormous. The picture to the left was taken from the top of Monserrate, the mountain on the edge of the city. Como se dice "urban sprawl"? I went to Bogota to visit friends, but I'd met someone in Cartagena the week before, and Bogota just happened to be the next stop on his tour of South America. Lawrence and I spent a lot of time together that week.

We hit all the highlights. museum...Botero museum...

The best weekend was the last one there, because it was Halloween. Halloween is a HUGE deal in Colombia (little did we know...). It is over a three-day weekend, and everyone dresses up all three days. We went to a Calle 13 concert on Friday. Calle 13 is a really popular hip-hop artist. Manuel had introduced me to his music back in Cartagena, so I was really excited to see him live. The concert was insane. It took us about two hours just to get to the concert at what looked like a giant, abandoned warehouse outside Bogota. Everyone was dressed in costume, and people kept trying to sell us bottles of Colombia's national brew. This life-affirming moment brought to you by Aguardiente? We passed.

The last highlight of the trip was Saturday. We went to a church (of course...what else would the good Christian people of Colombia do?), which was highly unusual, because it was carved out of rock in a giant underground salt mine. Creepy, but cool. Fun fact: apparently the only other church like it in the world is in Poland. You know what they say - if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you salt, make...churches?

After the salt mine we caught the bus to the coolest restaurant I have ever been to. It's called Andres Carne de Res, and is a HUGE steakhouse outside Bogota. It apparently started as one small shop, and then kept expanding...and expanding...It would probably take up about two New York city blocks easily. Everyone was dressed in costume (of course), and we witnessed many weird and mythical creatures parading and generally making merry.

Soon it was late Sunday night and time for me to go to the airport. I had a fantastic week in Bogota. After confirming with three different airline employees that I was not, in fact, a drug trafficker, I made my way to the gate and caught my red-eye back to the states with no problem. I didn't sleep much on my way back to states, but with three full days between me and Colombia, it really is remarkable how quickly I'm moving back into the (admittedly much quicker) pace of life back in DC.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quick! To the Batcave!

Last I heard, Batman wasn't Colombian. However, if he were, I am pretty sure I know where he would hide his ride, and it's not in Bogota.

Last weekend we went to San Gil, which is known for extreme sports and outdoor adventures. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I'm always ready for anything that involves waves, "gear", or a required waver-signing before attempting it.

San Gil is about 14-16 hours away from Cartagena, depending on how generous your bus driver is feeling to roadside travelers, and how long your transfer is in Bucaramanga. We left Friday night after classes, and got into San Gil about 2:00PM on Saturday. After a much-needed shower and teeth-brushing, I caught a bus to a town just outside of San Gil where I could go cave exploring. I just made the last trip of the day. Julia had gotten to San Gil a few days before, since she had a week off from work, and the other people in our group had decided to stop at a park. This meant it was just me and five 17-year-olds, who turned out to be good sports.

Once outfitted with our helmets and life-vests, (life-vests? really?) we set off. Our guide took us through dark caverns. We ducked under stalactites and turned off our headlamps at certain points so as not to "freak out" the bats. Right. It was seriously cool slithering through tunnels or wading through pools of muddy water. At the end of our trip, we reached what looked like a huge diving board...if oil tankers came with diving boards. The board was over a huge pool about 15 feet below us. We were supposed to jump off and swim across the pool. A ha. Hence the life-jackets. One by one we leaped off into the blackness. It seemed like an awfully long time before the others hit the water, but hey, what the hell. The water was definitely cold, but I was laughing as I swam to the other side. This would SO never fly in the United States...

That night the whole group headed to an outdoor Vallenato festival in a little colonial town next to San Gil (Vallenato is a type of Colombian music). The town was beautiful, and it's always nice to practice my Colombian dancing skills, even if I am still rhythmically challenged. Maybe I'll get the hang of it in the last three weeks I'm here. Ok... so there's not a future spot for me on "So You Think You Can Dance."

Next morning Julia and I went down to the river for rafting. I found that our guide was none other than one of the guys I had danced with last night! Well nice to see you again, too. Rafting was great fun, as always, and afterward we headed out to lunch with some new rafting buddies and drove out to the hill where people can go paragliding. I was so excited to go, and started taking pictures of all the paragliders, knowing I would be up there in a minute. Alas, the wind didn't feel like cooperating, and died about two minutes after we got there. So much for that.

Monday morning I chose to leave earlier than the rest of the group, because I had to be back by 7:00AM on Tuesday morning, and I didn't want to be late. Last time three of us had been 15 minutes late for class, and it was a big deal. I work at a private language center where students pay very good money to attend classes, and it happens to be one of the few places in Colombia where it actually matters if you're on time. Because of this, I missed the waterfalls and hike through the forest that the rest of the group took that morning. I wish I'd planned better and gotten a substitute for my Tuesday morning class, but I didn't, so I sucked it up and headed back on the 2:00PM bus instead of the 4:30 from Bucaramanga.

A few hours into the trip, Julia texted me to say that they hadn't gotten to Bucaramanga in time, and would have to take the 6:00 bus. I certainly thought that the other girl who teaches with me would be late for class. I'd warned her what our boss had told me, but she'd still decided to take the late bus. My bus took exactly 14 hours from Bucaramanga, and I got home at 4:00AM. For some miraculous reason, the other bus took 12 hours and got back at 6:00AM with enough time for the other girl to get to Centro Colombo on time. I was pissed, but I realized something important. I value my work extremely highly, and if someone thinks I am not taking a job seriously, that's a problem for me. There was no way I was going to make that phone call telling my boss I couldn't make it to work on time. It's stressful trying to fit everything in a 3-day weekend here, and truthfully, I don't have nearly enough time to see all I want to see. However, I learned this weekend how highly I value others' professional opinion of me, which was a good affirmation to make. If I have to sacrifice a waterfall to learn that lesson, then so be it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dr. Seuss Goes Birdwatching

Before Julia and I left for Minca, we were perusing her guidebook for helpful things to see and do. The book mentioned that aside from organic coffee and picturesque walks through the jungle, Minca was also known for its many, many birds. Julia's guidebook devoted almost an entire page just to cataloging bird names. Among others, the book listed: the chesnut piculet, the blue-knobbed curassow (which to me sounded more like a cocktail than a bird), the tyrian metaltail, and the brown-rumped tapaculo, not to be confused with the Santa Marta tapaculo. Now, I couldn't tell you what a brown-rumped tapaculo looked like if my life depending on it, but with a name that could come right out of a Dr. Seuss book, how could it not be ridiculously cool?

We spent Saturday just wandering around Santa Marta, exploring the town and then heading off to the beach. It was hot and steamy, but the water was exactly the right temperature, and cleaner than the water along Cartagena's beaches. Saturday night we had the most amazing Mexican food I've had since the last time I was in California. After that we wandered down to a different beach and made some new friends from our hostel.

Sunday morning we wandered through the market, trying to find the bus that would take us to Minca. After getting lost among juice stands and bicycle-repair shops for awhile, we found the "bus" to Minca. The small car looked like it had been made long before the Berlin Wall came down, but Julia and I squeezed in along with 4 other passengers, and we headed off to Minca.

The walk through the jungle was perfect. We walked about an hour away from the town of Minca, scouting for birds. We'd decided to name at least one bird for ourselves, but there didn't seem to be any around. Our destination was a pool and waterfall which used to be a sacred site for the Koguis, the tribe which inhabited the mountains before the Spanish came. The pool was beautiful...the water freezing. After our swim, we sat out on the sunny rocks to dry. Suddenly I started to notice several red dots appearing on the tops of my legs. I looked on the backs of my legs and realized they were covered. Julia and I had been attacked by jenenes, tiny mosquitos that you can't see but which cause deep bites. It was time to go

On the way back, we kept looking around for birds, hoping to see something that we could christen. Alas, the only thing we saw was a rooster. Rooster jungle pigeon...? Tomayto-tomahto. Perhaps the elusive jungle pigeon will have to wait until the next time. Maybe after my jejene bites heal, I'll consider going back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Water, Water, Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Last week was a little bit dramatic. I came home from school to find we had no water. Maria, our house Mom, told us that no one in our area had water, and that “they” were trying to do something about it. Now, I haven’t been in Cartagena very long, but I’ve spent enough time in South America to know that when “they” do something about a problem, often mosquitoes go through entire lifecycles before the problem gets fixed.

It really is amazing how much more you appreciate something when it is very suddenly taken away from you. We couldn’t do dishes or make a lot of food that required boiling things…bathrooms everywhere in the city were out of service because the main pipeline several miles away had burst due to unseasonable erosion and exposure. All inconvenient bathroom-break strategizing aside, the worst part was that we couldn’t take a shower. Now, when the days in Cartagena are 90°F with 75% humidity, showers are necessary. I also love to run, and sometimes get up very early in the morning (read: 4:45AM) to go running before it gets too hot out. These two days especially, I really needed some exercise.

The water turned on sporadically for the next 48 hours, and we were able to gather enough water for small amounts of cooking, for flushing the toilet, and for taking bucket showers. I’d never taken a bucket shower in my life before. Any time I’ve gone camping, I’ve always washed in the river or just sucked it up for a couple of days. For some reason it’s easier to do that when you’re expecting not to have access to a shower, as opposed to being blind sighted. Also, lack of plumbing in the forest (aka – an area with general lack of civilization) isn’t really a problem, since…well…no one really cares if you just pick the nearest tree and go about your business. Cities without plumbing are a bit more complicated, but a couple bucket showers now and again never hurt anyone. I was still able to go for my runs.

A city-wide lack of water is apparently very unusual, but things got more stressful than that. Aside from no water, our internet also shut down for a few days, our phone wasn’t working, and…we had a few new friends who’d moved into our room. These friends were not welcome. The first one had four legs, a tail, a love of cheese, and still lives under Julia’s bed. The second had eight legs and set up camp in our bathroom. Julia had warned Anezka and me not to use the bathroom, but we scouted it out and the spider seemed to have left. That night around 4:00AM I got up to use the bathroom. I opened the door and was greeted by a giant black spot on the floor. The spot moved. I screamed, slammed the door, and caused my two roommates to awaken, terrified, and demand in the name of all that was holy why I was acting like an axe murderer had come for tea. I explained. They went back to sleep...or ignored me.

The next morning, our friend with too many eyes and too many legs had gone, but that night he returned. Moreover, he’d grown bolder, and had ventured out from the bathroom. I was alone. Julia and Anezka were nowhere to be found. This was serious, and I needed backup. Unfortunately, there was no boy readily available, and Manuel refused to come over and kill it for me. For some reason he thought I was being silly and could do it myself. Right. Screw chivalry. Of course I could.

I strategized. The spider was crawling across the wall and over my bed. I pulled my bed into the center of the room, so any dead spider remains wouldn’t fall on it. Then after jumping up and down a lot and shouting colorful things (which did nothing…surprisingly), I picked a book from my closet and hurled it at the spider. Spider and book fell. I had won. Let me just say that Mario Vargas Llosa comes in handy for more than practicing your Spanish.

The water returned the next day, our internet returned the next day, and one of our guy friends came to sweep up the spider carcass. I’ve climbed mountains, crossed borders, hitch-hiked through foreign countries, made friends with unusual people…but it’s good to be reminded that even something the size of your fist, or something as simple as not taking a shower can still throw you off your guard. I’m thankful for small reminders like that. And for the fact that through all of this, our air conditioning still worked.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Teacher, why is the mens walking if they can drive a car faster instead?"

It's now been two months since I began teaching English in Cartagena at Centro Colombo Americano. The first month I just observed classes, and the second I taught full time. I teach three regular classes plus Speaking Corner, which is an informal class where students come to practice their speaking.

Teaching is not easy. I'd had plenty of tutoring and informal teaching experience before, but I'd never taught full-time before coming here. It looks simple when you observe someone who knows what she's doing - the class moves smoothly and everyone looks engaged. At the end of the month, everyone passes with flying colors. Simple, right? Things get tricky pretty quickly though, when you don't know the right questions to ask to elicit student participation, you explain too much and end up lecturing, you don't come up with good examples that demonstrate grammar nuances, or, of course, if you just don't have the energy.

I never thought before how accountable teachers were for their work. If a student loses interest, you immediately see. If a student doesn't understand, the test or quiz will demonstrate that quite clearly. And if students don't like you...well...they can certainly say so on the teacher evaluation. I am not a person who can sit comfortably in front of a computer all day and stay far removed from her work. I need to be engaged; need to see the fruits of my labor right in front of me. I want results. Luckily, teaching is perfectly conducive to that. It is not always easy, but I love the challenge.

Last week I was nervous. My students had their final exams, and I wanted them to do well. Two of my classes were fantastic, but the third one was full of students with terrible attendance and bad attitudes. They didn't participate, and it was hard not to take something like that personally. I always wondered if there were something I could be doing better. Luckily every one of my students passed, even if some just scraped by. My greatest victory was a student who failed his oral exam, but I worked with him to understand the grammar, and he aced the written part. He was shaking when I told him he could move on to the next level, and he gave me a giant hug.

Despite some minor pitfalls, last month was full of highlights, and I'm excited for more. I had several students tell me they loved me at the end of class. One student told me I was the best teacher he'd ever had. This month I'm teaching one of the groups of students I observed my first month here. They got to know me because I taught a few lessons for their main teacher. When I walked into the classroom yesterday, they all shouted, "Leah! Yaaaaay!" It was indeed a very warm welcome. I may have a few Calvins again this month, but hopefully I'll be better prepared. May the Susies triumph once again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Made in Medellin

Colombia is famous...or infamous...for many things. The FARC and drug trafficking are two subjects that often come to mind. However, my month and a half here has confirmed what I already believed before leaving the US: that Colombia is turning around. A couple of weeks ago I met the head of security for all American armed forces in Colombia, and according to him, only a few years ago cities such as Medellin were still largely unsecured. Today that has changed.

Medellin is known most widely as the birthplace and burial place of Pablo Escobar. For those of us who are not loyal fans of HBO's Entourage, or who think that Vinny Chase's bloody portrayal of Señor Escobar may not be entirely accurate, Pablo Escobar is Colombia's most famous drug lord. At one point it is said that his Medellin cartel controlled 80% of cocaine shipped to the United States. This feat helped land him on Forbes Magazine's 1989 list of the 10 richest men in the world. The drug lord/billionaire even had the audacity to visit the White House at the time he was one of the most wanted men in the world. In his biography, there's a picture of him standing with his son in front of the White House lawn. Unfortunately, life tends to be rather nasty, brutish, and short for drug lords, and Escobar was no exception. He died in 1993.

All interest in drug cartels and the US government aside, my friends and I did not go to Medellin for the Pablo Escobar tour. We were going for La Feria de las Flores. After all, more than cocaine is made in Medellin.

La Feria de las Flores is a two-week long celebration guessed! Historically Medellin was a flower mecca; peasants from the surrounding mountains would decend to the city carrying flowers on giant woven circles attached to their backs. At the flower parade we went to on Friday, puppets of hummingbirds, flower beauty queens, and people carrying flower displays on their backs paraded slowly past us. I couldn't help thinking how few men I knew in the United States who would willingly adorn themselves with bright pink tulips and go out in public. A city that devotes two whole weeks to a celebration entirely about flowers? You had me at 'hydrangea.'

That night my friends and I met up with other members of AIESEC in Medellin. They told us we were going on a Chiva Tour. A Chiva Tour is basically a Colombian version of a party bus. Directions for proper Chiva Tour: take roughly 6 dozen twentysomethings and put them on what looks like an overgrown schoolbus with no seats. Add alcohol and filter in very loud latin music. Start driving. Voila - chaos, shaken, not stirred.

Saturday and Sunday passed by in an instant. We shopped, we ate delicious food, we walked around the botanical garden exhibition and saw beautiful flowers and handicrafts,

we rode the cable car up the hill to watch the sun set,

went to the Botero museum, and of course we took advantage of Medellin's very active nightlife.

Unfortunately the bus coming back to Cartagena took 14 hours instead of 12, and we were a little late to class on Monday morning. Our boss wasn't too pleased, but we'll know better for next time. Lessons learned this weekend? Medellin is an amazing city, absolutely anything can be decorated with flowers, and when in doubt, take the 10:30 bus. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, August 3, 2009

L'Auberge Espagnole

In the movie L'Auberge Espagnole, a French engineering student named Xavier goes to study for a year in Barcelona. He moves into a cluttered and chaotic house of Europeans. They speak a hodge-podge of different languages and constantly get in each other's way, fall in love, and then annoy each other. At times it all seems rather dramatic. Then again, this is all just part of the learning/growing/travel experience, n'est pas?

Here in Cartagena, life often feels a bit like L'Auberge Espagnole. I am the only American in my program, and am constantly surrounded by either Europeans or Colombians. We have people from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Canada, and the US. The girls from England and Slovenia left right after I arrived here. Everyone speaks English, Spanish, or both, so communication isn't really a problem at all. That being said, some cultural exchanges will always inevitably be lost in translation.

I was talking to my roomate Anezka the other night. She said what I thought was, "I want to buy some yearbooks."
I knew this probably couldn't be what she meant, so I asked, "Yearbooks, really?"
"No, no, ear blocks."
"Ohhhh...ear plugs."
"Yes, that is what I said."
Main bien sur.

Thomas is another exchange participant whom I adore. Like Anezka, he hails from the Czech Republic. One time in a cab, I was commenting on the fact that I was getting annoyed at people who kept telling me I had to go to the beach to work on my tan.
"Ah, yes," said Thomas. "You are like...what is her name...? Snow White."
"Haha, yeup," I said.
"And here in Cartagena, you are going to find your seven dwarves."

It's true that most Colombian men tend to be on the shorter side, but the idea of seven Colombian dwarves following me around singing 'hi ho, hi ho, hi ho,' was absolutely riduclous...and hilarious. In another episode of 'Thoughts: By Thomas,' we went to a restaurant for lunch, and Thomas was remarking on the design of the placemat. The design was an abstract graphic of a woman with a large afro and various shapes and musical instruments coming out of her hair. Thomas asked, "What are all these things coming out of her hair? It looks very dirty. She should really use Head and Shoulders." He was kidding, but for some reason these comments strike me as ten times funnier when they come from non-native speakers.

Here all languages seem to mix up a little bit more every day. Last week Anezka taught me a Czech drinking song. I can greet people in Russian and Polish. I needed to consult the Colombian teachers today on how to explain English grammar, because I didn't know the rules for when to use a negative in a certain construction. Pretty soon I'll have to read 'Gramatica de Ingles por Dummies,' which is sitting in the office of Centro Colombo, where I teach. Life here is definitely an unusual hodge-podge, and if I begin to start forgetting English a bit...well...that's okay with me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Flora, Fauna, and Pachamama

The night before my roomates and I left for Santa Marta, we were all sitting around the kitchen table when a giant, winged thing came buzzing into the room and landed on the fridge. Naturally the three extranjeras screamed and shot into the hallway while Maria sat unconcerned.
Me: Oh my lord! Maria, that thing is the size of a truck! What on earth is that?
Maria: A cricket.
Me: That is NOT a cricket.
Maria: Yes it is. We have smaller ones, and that size, and bigger ones, too.
Me: in the place we're going this weekend?
Maria: Yes, we have a beautiful array of flora and fauna in this country.

Needless to say, the thought of crickets roughly the size of Panama did not exactly thrill me. We were headed to Santa Marta, which is about a 4 hour busride from Cartagena, and is the hub for two very cool places: Tyrona, site of a huge national park; and Taganga, an old fishermen's village now playing host to juice stands, hostels, and flotillas of tourists.

We left at the very reasonable hour of 4:30AM on Saturday morning. After a few delays with buses (shocking, really), we rolled into Santa Marta just in time to meet Julia's two friends from Bogota. One was French and one was Australian, and they'd brought along a Colombian friend. One of my roomates is Czech and the other is Polish, so all together we definitely made an international crew.

We immediately set off to the park, grabbing provisions on the way. We had to walk for 45 minutes once inside the park to get to our camping ground. For $4, we rented a hammock for the night. Sleeping arrangements made, we traipsed off to the beach and spent the rest of the day riding the waves and watching the sunset.

One of my absolute favorite things about traveling is hostel life. I love sitting down at a big communal table, eating freshly made food after a long day, and meeting new people. While at our campsite, I started talking to a Colombian, who was very knowledgable about the park's history. We decided to take a walk to the beach and go see the jungle at night. We had to walk past another campsite to get to the beach, but I was really hesitant to keep going because an incredible sound grew louder and louder as we approached, and I thought we were about to walk into a troop of howler monkeys. We then realized that they were not in fact monkeys but rather...frogs...? No problem. We leaped across the stream, over to the beach, and out under the clearest stars I've ever seen. Amazing. Aldé then proceeded to tell me about the history of Tyrona Park, and about how it used to be the garden for the Koguis, the indigenous people who inhabited the mountains before the Spanish came. Some of their cities were so well hidden that the Spanish never found them. In 1998, the Koguis allowed a BBC film crew to document their culture and spread a message to their "little brothers", aka us. The message was that the Koguis had noticed rain patterns already starting to shift in the mountains; if the little brothers did not learn to be more in harmony with the earth, great disasters would come to pass. You can watch the movie online here.

Aldé also told me that the Koguis were very concerned with maintaining the balance of male and female elements. Women were apparently already in tune with Pachamama, or Mother Earth, but men had to work harder at it and spend time in the forest trying to understand nature. I have to say that with my bare toes in the sand and salt still in my hair, I felt pretty in touch with Pachamama and the state of the world.

The next day was a little bit more intense. The Frenchman and Colombian girl had gone their separate way, so Julia, Anezka, Ross and I set out for Pueblito, one of the well-preserved ancient cities of the Koguis that the Spanish never discovered.

Julia (Poland), Me (US), Anezka (Czech Republic), Ross (Australia)

It was 45 minutes from our campsite to the next beach, then a two-hour hike mostly uphill to reach Pueblito. It was 85 degrees with 85% humidity and I was soaked by the end. Another two hours downhill led us back to the water and...a nude beach! Surprise! We walked back to camp, appreciating everything and everyone in his/her/its natural state.

When we got back to camp, it turned out that we could not in fact take a bus from there to the front entrance of the park (Conflicting travel information? You don't say). It was ONLY another hour and a half walk back, so after 6.5 hours of walking, we stumbled back to the entrance and on a bus for Taganga. Note: I was stumbling, but it seems everyone else was just fine. I thought I was in shape, but these Europeans and Australians just seem to leap over things. I swear, they are built with springs in their knees.

We spent Saturday night and most of Sunday in Taganga. It was another day at the beach, and quite lovely. Then we caught a taxi and buses back to Cartagena, and rolled back into our room around 11:30. Whew. One very busy but incredible weekend - two days in the park really wasn't enough, and hopefully I'll get to go back before November.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Did Someone Call for a Doctor?

There are many things I will never be. Some examples include: Olympic gymnast, carpet salesman, nun, marine biologist, Hell's Angels biker, bodybuilder, dictator of a small island nation, card-carrying member of the NRA, Pokemon card collector, or...a doctor. Those who know me well know I tend to pull a Wicked Witch of the West and melt into the floor when people start talking in too much detail about blood or needles. I hate blood...a lot. Thus, it may surprise others to know that when a bunch of American soldiers came to my school to ask for volunteers for a medical project, my first response was not, " thank you." In fact, I said, "Yeah, that sounds great!" Caveat: the soliders did not need people to tie sutures or administer IVs to burn victims. They had set up a medical center in a school, and needed translators. Now I may not know my tibia from my fibula, but I can speak Spanish pretty well. I was game.

The school where the Army and Marine personnel set up the medical center is located in an area called Omayra Sanchez. The name itself has a pretty incredible story. Omayra Sanchez is named after a 13 year old girl who died when Nevado del Ruiz volcano errupted in 1985. Omayra was trapped up to her neck in mud and rubble, and the villagers didn´t have the technology to extract her. She stayed trapped for three days before dying, but there are photos and a video of her speaking that can be found online if you´re so inclined. (I haven´t had the nerve to look at the video yet.)

Omayra Sanchez didn´t die anywhere near Cartagena, but I was told there are many neighborhoods all over Colombia named for her. Throughout my two days working at the center, I kept thinking about her incredibly courageous story. It seems so obvious that today we would have the technology to save her, but hearing the story made doubly important the work that the American troops were doing - they were bringing technology and expertise to an area which would otherwise go overlooked.

The first day was basically a crash course in Spanish medical terms. I sat next to the triage nurse and a Colombian translator, and wrote down everything I didn´t know. The second day I had a firmer knowledge base. A Colombian triage nurse would ask the patient questions, and then I filled out the medical form in English for the English-speaking doctors. It was so interesting. The majority of patients who came in were pregant women or women with children. On breaks, I sat with the soliders/marines (who were great) and learned about life in the armed forces. Fun fact: I can now recite the chain of command for both enlisted personnel and officers. It is long. The army, apparently, is big on organization.

At the end of two days, I felt like I´d definitely made a contribution. One of the officers asked me at the end if I´d like to translate again when a large medical ship comes into port to perform on-ship operations and do more advanced medical treatment. They´ll be here starting the end of the month, and I´m already getting excited. I may never be a doctor, but it seems I can help them do their job.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How to Cook Like a Colombian Grandmother

This year is the second in a row that I celebrated the Fourth of July in South America while toasting the US's independence with British people. Odd, but fun. Last year it was Iguazu, Argentina. This year it's Cartagena, and I drank rum and mango juice instead of cachaca.

Toasting the holiday with a British girl in my program was great, but the meal I'd had earlier that day was the real highlight. It wasn't exactly the meal I'd normally eat to celebrate the holiday of Beer, Barbecue, and Freedom, but was delicious nonetheless. I've been telling Maria, the house owner, that I really, really need to learn how to cook Colombian food. On the 4th she gave me my first cooking lesson.

Before I go into further detail, a word about Maria: I adore her. She is one of the sweetest, most gentle, giving people I have ever met. She loves to mother everyone who's staying in her house. She only has one biological son, but plenty of other adopted children. For the first few days I was here, she would constantly hover, worrying about me.

Conversation we repeated about a dozen times my first week here:
Maria: "Leah, you have to eat more. You're young, it's hot outside. You need energy."
Me: "I'm not very hungry, Maria. I just got here. That happens when I travel - I need a few days to adjust."
Maria: "Ok, do you want some arepas?"
Me: "No, no, really, I promise, I'm fine."
Maria: "Ok, well I'm making some meat now. With salt, garlic...really delicious. I think you're going to like it."


Maria is always cooking something, which makes all her houseguests happy, because she happens to be very good at it. In honor of me and America's Day of Independence, she cooked a huge feast with coconut rice, fish, salad, soup, fresh juice, and fried plantains. Ay, dios mio. I watched carefully as she cooked everything, cataloging the steps.

Coconut Rice

1. First, you put either some coconut water (or milk) in a big pot with some sugar.

2. Wait until the coconut water and sugar reduce to a thick, honey-colored paste.

3. While waiting, sit around, snacking on nispero.

4. If you happen to be four years old, eat popsicle and practice looking deceptively cute and innocent.

5. Yay! Time to add the rest of the coconut milk, coconut rind, and rice.

6. Cook for about twenty minutes, then serve, along with fish, salad, fried plantains, etc.

7. If a minor flood happens to inundate your kitchen because the part of the house next to the kitchen has no roof, ignore water and continue eating. Note: this happened. We were relatively unconcerned. All turned out fine.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Welcome to the Caribbean

I only arrived a few days ago, but it seems a lot has already happened since I've been here. On Friday (my second day), I went to a dinner to meet all the other people in my program. Somewhere around 10:00 it came up that a group was leaving the following day for Islas de Rosario, or the Rosario Islands. They were leaving around 7:15 - did I want to come? Absolutely. So I got up the next morning at 6:30, packed my bag, and headed off with them to the docks to chart a boat. At that hour it was already hot enough to make my waterbottle sweat, and I was anxious to get on the boat and feel the breeze. Of course it took a few hours to bargain for a price and wait for the boat, but the cool and refreshing hour-long ride to the island made up for the wait in the sun. The boat stopped at one smaller island in the middle of our ride, but our destination was La Isla Grande, the Big Island in Islas de Rosario.

What greeted us as we arrived wasn't exactly what I'd was better. The woman back in port had mentioned a kind of touristy, resorty place. The five guys in chairs and hammocks didn't exactly exude tourist central, which I was glad for. Juan, our adorable, house-elf sized host greeted us with a huge smile, and we agreed to pay 40,000 Colombian pesos for one night's accomodation in cabins and three meals. $20 - not too shabby.

That night we ate dinner early because the sun sets around 6:30, and Juan and our other host Gorgi needed light to cook our meal. Our site didn't have electricity. Our dinner had been swimming only an hour or so before, and it was absolutely delicious. After dinner I wandered out alone to the end of the long dock and sat down to watch the sunset.

Soon moon-spangled waves sparkled around me. The only noise was the waves beating underneath me and the scuttle of crabs who shared my dock. Once 3-D clouds now bled into the sky like deep eraser marks of someone trying to smudge the stars, and lights of neighboring villages lit the shore. Apparently I was out there longer than I thought, because I started to hear voices from my group shout across the water, so I wandered back to convince them I hadn't been eaten by a shark.

There were seven in our group. We came either from AIESEC, my program here, or knew someone in AIESEC. Most of us had only met that morning, but we all got along really well, and just spent the evening talking. I think we were all pretty friendly, laid-back people, but then again clear turquoise water, beaches, and beer aren't exactly conducive to awkward social situations.

The next morning at breakfast, we were graced with a visit by Javier, the village drunk. He sat down and proceeded to tell us that he was jealous of no races, that he loved everyone, and then asked if we believed in God. Apparently some of our answers in the affirmative didn't convince him, because he asked us again several times to make sure. After breakfast we followed Gorgi around exploring the island. Highlights: the battered door with "50 Cent" graffiti-ed into the green paint; chickens; and the stone offering to La Virgen de Rosario, the Islands' patron virgin protector. Lowlights: mosquitos. Gorgi showed us the local way to keep the little bloodsuckers away. It involved taking a light branch of leaves and gently flogging yourself while you walked through the forest. We flogged. The mosquitos kept biting. My branch broke. I gave up. We did find the more resorty-type place with a full bar and cute little huts, but I was glad the boatman had dropped us off at our location.

After an afternoon of more swimming and beach-lounging, we headed back. A weekend on the island was the perfect introduction to Cartagena. I didn't spy Jack Sparrow anywhere or come across a secret stash of rum under the coconut trees, but the trip was amazing nonetheless. Sun, clear water, wonderful people, and fresh seafood? A girl could get used to this.