Playing Telephone

Doesn’t it look like these two guys are playing telephone, the science trick/game where you attach two tin cans via a string and your voice carries down the string and to the person on the other can? They’re not. They’re actually talking on cell phones, albeit not theirs, thus the strings (which attach the phones to the desk and prevent theft). In Colombia it seems that personal cell phone ownership is not as high as in many countries we’ve visited. That doesn’t mean that they’re not ubiquitous, however. On every street corner, you’ll find a man or woman offering the use of one of their many cell phones for a set fee. Here, as revealed by the pink sign behind the woman at the desk, you can make a call for 100 pesos a minute (the equivalent of $0.05), as these men are doing. It’s the newest reincarnation of the pay phone.

My Kind of Town

Santa Marta is a stopover town. It’s a convenient place to organize a trek to the Lost City, an easy place to crash before heading into Tayrona National Park. It’s home to a port large enough to accommodate a cruise ship full of passengers that immediately hop a taxi to the nearby village of Taganga. Though a large city, Santa Marta doesn’t have much that would fall under the category of attractions. It’s mainly just a busy local city.

I guess it might not make that much sense then when I tell you that we stayed three nights.

After the past year of travel and all the trips that came before it, I no longer need museums, guide book starred attractions, or the other activities that commonly clog itineraries. I’m not opposed to them, and I do sometimes indulge in them, but more often than not, I’m just as happy to hang out, to grab lunch at the local “plate of the day” place, to sit on a bench and watch the world go by. What fascinates me most is not the thing that puts a place on the map but the people that call that place home. Life, plain and simple, is what gets me.

And so in Santa Marta, we walk the busy Carrera 5, crowded with the booths of vendors selling bootleg DVDs, flip-flops, bras and underwear, hangers, toys, and anything and everything else in-between. We sink our toes the strip of sand, not as nice as the beaches of the surrounding towns, and laugh at the girls playing supermodel for their friends’ cameras and the boys turning tires into toys.

For lunch, we ask bus attendants and gas station service men for suggestions, following their directions until we end up at a tiny place serving huge meals of soup, meat, yucca, and salad.

As twilight falls, we meander along the beachfront promenade, past overly muscled sculptures of indigenous heros, watching men slam domino pieces down on a board, clowns juggle machetes and balancing bikes on their chins, and vendors preparing pizzas and carne asade on portable grills. The sounds of accordian and steel drum merge into a beat that pulls couples from their chairs to dance close together, oblivious to the commotion around them.

And at the end of every night, we end up on the street full of food vendors, parked in a molded plastic chair, sipping passion fruit juice, nibbling on the many varieties of “Fritos”–empanadas, arepas, dedos de queso–, and chatting with whoever ends up sitting next to us.

If you were to put it into a guidebook, it wouldn’t sound like much. Which is why we chose to travel without a guidebook. Sometimes the best things just can’t be classified or contained.

I think the site is fixed

I make my long awaited return to the blog to announce … that after countless days of annoying correspondence with our web hosts, I think we took care of all the crap that was going wrong on our blog. Please do let us know if you notice anything weird because we had to move servers and reset links and insanity like that. So hopefully no more spam and hopefully links keep working. Just what I love doing while on vacation!

How to be an Ugly American Without Leaving Your Hostel

1. At a very full hostel, with conversation flowing at over ten packed tables, talk so loudly that your voice carries over the entire place.

2. Be sure to talk about money. Drop a comment about how much money you make, how expensive your apartment is, or the latest and greatest stock tips you have.

3. Tell the girl at your table who speaks English with a different accent than yours that she must be British. When she tells you that she’s German, make a big surprised face and say that well, you could tell that she wasn’t American (as though Americans and Brits are the only people who speak English).

4. Make really bombastic comments that show just how ignorant you are. For example: “The poorest people in the world live in America. Seriously. I mean just check out Harlem.”

5. Throw in a crude comment or two. A good one would be: “Staying in hostels is like a total Catch 22. You meet so many girls. It’s awesome. But at the same time you don’t have any privacy. Argh. What are you to do?”

6. Declare that there’s just no way to blend in as an American so why try. Then continue to be the loud, ignorant, obnoxious American that so many people expect us to be but that so few of us actually are. Someone’s got to keep the stereotype alive after all. Someone’s got to make the rest of us step up our game as we try to prove the stereotype wrong again and again and again.

A Silent Night in Cartagena

It’s after eight on Friday night in Cartagena, Colombia’s most touristed town, both by domestic and foreign travelers. The sidewalks should be packed. The beat of salsa music should be resonating from behind the heavy wood doors of the clubs in the centro. Bar clientele should be spilling out into the streets. But instead there is silence.
Elections are this weekend.

Without ever intending to, Jeff and I seem to end up timing our travels with elections more frequently than you’d think possible. We landed in Nicaragua at election time. We were in South Africa as Zuma took the presidency. We were woken up at 4 a.m. by Likoma Islanders celebrating the election of their candidate. And now we’re here in Colombia as they elect a new senate (or whatever they call it here).

I’m guessing there are a lot of people who think that visiting a country during elections is not the smartest travel strategy. Elections have been known to bring out the ugly. But all we’ve ever witnessed is election enthusiasm that makes American elections look like the most boring event in the world. (Given, we’d probably look more closely into election schedules before we decided to travel somewhere like say Pakistan, not that its on the itinerary.) From everyone we’ve talked to here in Colombia, it seems this weekend’s elections are going to be entirely uneventful.

Which leads me back to Cartagena, and its dull state on a weekend evening. It’s not that everyone is so absorbed in the elections that they’ve all opted to forego partying in order to stay at home and discuss politics; it’s that they literally can’t go to the bar, can’t get their groove on at the club, can’t slam down the rum and cokes on the chiva party bus. In Colombia, it’s illegal to sell alcohol during the three day election period. You can’t buy it the day before the election. You’ve got to dry out before you go to the election booth. You can’t buy it election day. You might accidentally put your X in the wrong spot. And you can’t buy it the day after election. You might be more likely to start a riot when your candidate loses.

Actually, I’m not sure the reasoning behind the law, but I imagine it’s something along those lines. Whether things would actually get crazy if people were allowed to buy alcohol, I can’t say. (I kind of doubt it, especially since there’s nothing to stop people from stocking up the day before the ban goes into effect and drinking at home all weekend long.) But I can say that without the alcohol, Cartagena is one quiet town. We’ll see if it changes on Monday when the ban lifts. Until then the city will have to make do with fruit juice and coffee.

There’s a Difference Between Eating and Eating Well

As we walk down the main beachfront street in Taganga, a man yells out to us encouraging us to come check out his restaurant. This restaurant has no name, doesn’t even really resemble a place to eat. On a circular slab of concrete shaded by a thatched roof, a small bar and a few molded plastic tables and chairs hold court. Aside from one supporting a local having a drink, the chairs remain unoccupied.

I look at Jeff and he asks if I want to check it out. I give a noncommital nod. After a morning of diving, we’re famished, but I’ve already rejected a handful of restaurants. There was nothing wrong with them, per say, but they weren’t what I wanted. They were places that catered to tourists, that automatically handed you an English menu, that would at your request cook up the same thing your mom was serving for dinner at home that very night. Some days that’s great, especially when you’ve been traveling a long time and feel the slight ache of homesickness or are simply travel fatigued, but on a short trip like this one, those places aren’t for me. I want to get the local taste.

So we enter the man’s restaurant. “What’s on the menu?” Jeff asks. The man, a guy bordering on senior citizen status with grey hair, worn hands, and a few missing teeth, doesn’t hand over a menu. Instead he opens a cooler. First, out comes a pink fish. In rapid fire Spanish, he begins to explain the fish to us, what it tastes like, how he’d cook it. He then opens the fish up at the gut and tells us to take a look inside, to note just how fresh it is. He then pulls out two more fish of different types and does the same thing. Our choice.

We pick the first fish. The man then places the fish on a platter and takes off down the street, disappearing into a doorway. He comes out emptyhanded. I have no idea who now has our fish, but I picture a little woman, his wife or mother, fixing up our lunch.

He returns to us, pulls up a chair, and begins to chat. Soon a local couple comes in and picks one of the remaining fish. They join in the conversation. As we wait for our meals, we are showered with advice on where to go and what to see, we get opinions on the upcoming election, we learn that the people here are believers in climate change as they’ve endured less and less rain and changing seas, we hear stories of how much Colombia has changed for the better in the past few years, we’re questioned about why more Americans don’t come to Colombia, Jeff is applauded for his Spanish.

When our food comes, it’s delicious. Accompanying the well-seasoned fish are fried plaintains, coconut rice, and salad. We clear our plates. For $5, it’s an incredible value. For a moment we consider paying up and heading back to our hotel for a nap in a hammock. But instead we order another drink and settle back into our chairs. The hammock will wait. Meals with this much local flavor are meant to be savored.

(P.S. We apologize for all the comment spam lately. Our server is not recognizing our spam blocker, and we’re having trouble working things out. Of course, this had to happen while we were gone and not online 24/7. Bear with us. I promise we’re working on it.)

Relearning to Travel

I know this sounds spoiled. Indulge me. Forgive me. But re-learning to travel like an American (aka on limited time) is hard. Yes, I hear you all crying for me from here. It’s a real sob story.

Our trip to Colombia is quickly approaching, and we’re trying to prepare for it. We’re going to be gone for 16 days. In American terms, that’s forever. After a one year trip, that’s not much time at all. There’s a little voice inside my head yelling at me that there’s absolutely no way we can see everything we want (or anything at all) in that amount of time. I keep yelling back and telling it to shut up, reminding it that there’s never enough time. Though we spent six weeks in Argentina, we didn’t make it to Mendoza. We missed Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca in Peru. In Thailand, the only island we made it to was Ko Phi Phi. Must see places went unseen. Sometimes entire countries–Bolivia, Rwanda–got chopped form the itinerary. Sixteen days, one year, a lifetime–it’s never enough.

So what to do? Well, first step. Make a big long list of everything we want to do. Our included scuba diving in the Caribbean, shoring up on Vitamin D on the beaches of Tayrona National Park, wandering the walled city of Cartagena, diving in the Pacific, hopping to the island of Providencia, getting to the source of the world’s best coffee, checking out the once notorious now revitalized Medellin, scaling the mountains of El Cocuy National Park, getting high on adventure in San Gil, and popping in on the capital Bogota. Mourn for a moment that there is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that you’ll get to do half of that in sixteen days, that you probably couldn’t even do it in a month. Then dry your eyes and move on.

Step two. Decide on top priorities. For us, scuba diving was a primary goal. I miss the amazing feeling of being under the sea, surrounded by crazy plants and animals. And the intense sunshine withdrawal we’re experiencing (after a year of summer, this winter has been particularly rough) made us favor Colombia’s warm, sunny destinations over its colder, snowier ones. Jeff said Tayrona was a must. I couldn’t imagine missing Cartagena. That’s three Carribbean coast destinations. Looking at the map, it made sense to dedicate at least a week of our time to that area. But where from there? In the end, we decided on Medellin, the coffee region, and Bogota (where we fly out of). Getting to the Pacific coast or one of the islands would have eaten up a lot of our time. Throwing out San Gil and El Cucoy were harder, but the fact that they were in the same region though made the choice easier: It will be that much easier to hit both of them on a return trip.

In the end, we based our decision on 1) desire and 2) logistics. If we had more time, if this were last year, we could have opted for the destinations that require 14 hour bus trips. We could have planned to cover much more territory. But bleeding entire days to travel on a trip this short just doesn’t make sense. Making the most out of what you’ve got is what life’s about.

And so, we have a plan. I managed to adjust my mindset, to re-learn to travel on borrowed time. But at the same time, I resisted many urges of the American traveler. We have a hotel booked for our first night, but that’s it. We have a flight in to the country and a flight out, but no other transportation arranged. I read blogs and message boards and websites, jotting down recommended hotels and things to do, but we’re not packing a guidebook. We sketched out a rough itinerary, but it’s in pencil and on paper, ready to be thrown out the window the moment we decide we want to spend another day on the beach at Tayrona, have had enough of the city, need to eat at that ceviche place once more time, want to rent bikes and tour the coffee region on two wheels. Though we might now have to abide by the rules of American vacation time, we don’t have to live by the rules of American vacations. Our time might be shorter on this trip than it was on the last, but we’re still the travelers we’ve always been. Ready for adventure. Open to opportunity. Excited to touch, taste, feel, hear, and see a place.

We have sixteen days. Aren’t we lucky?