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: Ummmm...like 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, "Uhhhh...no 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.