Diving into the Dark

Everyone else was on their way to dinner. The boats had come in for the day. Today’s catch was about to land on someone’s dinner plate. The beach had cleared out. But we, well we, were headed toward it, wet suits on, fins in hand. The sun was setting as we climbed aboard our boat and headed out to sea.

When we first learned to dive in the Perhentian Islands last August, I was nervous, not at all certain that I was going to like being meters under the sea, my only oxygen supply attached to my back. But I took to it quickly, finding the experience to be one of tranquility and amazement. I tried to remember that feeling as we skipped over the waves and toward our diving destination. I couldn’t quite convince myself, however, that this experience would be the same. We were going diving in the dark for goodness sakes. And that just seemed insane.

When the motor was killed, my sense of dread grew a bit. This was it. I leaned over the boat to rinse my googles and was greeted by pitch black seas. Usually, when we dive, I can see straight down to where we’re going to be, the clear water providing a preview of the dive. Not this time. Anything could be under the surface. I tried to stifle my overactive imagination, at least remind myself that dangerous sharks don’t populate these waters. I checked my flashlight. It cast a bright beam out over the water. I reminded Jeff that once we were in the water he needed to stay within my reach at all times. I reminded him again. And again.

And then I put on my BCD, tightened the straps, put the regulator in my mouth, perched on the edge of the boat, and backrolled into the dark, dark water. I was in. This was it. We were going night diving. In an instant, Jeff was in along with the other divers. I shined my flashlight toward the bottom and watched as a swath of sea was illuminated. Next thing I knew I was sinking down through the water, following my beam of light toward the bottom. If I turned my head to the side, I saw nothing. The ocean was black as sin. Only where I shined my light or others shined theirs, could I see anything. I was prepared to be completely freaked out. But somehow I wasn’t. My heart was certainly beating faster than on a regular dive. I could literally feel the adrenalin pumping through my veins. But more than frightening, this night dive was exciting.

The sights weren’t bad either. Before we’ve even gotten to our bottom depth, I’m trying to get Jeff’s attention. I’ve spotted an octopus. A giant lobster has come out to feed. A puffer fish floats right into us, blowing up into a giant balloon immediately upon contact, then floating back and forth like a helium balloon that’s been punctured. A squid flashes past us, hardly more than a flash of light in the dark. The best part, however, is when we find a sandy patch where we all sink to our knees. Then we turn out our lights. It’s dark. Completely, utterly, totally dark. But then our instructor begins to splash his hands. Tiny lights fill the water. We join in, each of us splashing the water in front of us. The ocean fills with bioluminescence. It’s amazing. Wondrous. A bit like being in a dark field lit only by lightening bugs. Even at night, the ocean proves to be tranquil.

When our tanks run low, we reluctantly rise to the surface. As soon as our regulators are out of our mouths, we’re talking a hundred miles a minute about how great the dive was. Trepidation has been completely replaced with awe.

I float for a moment in the dark ocean and stare up at the stars and back toward the town. Sometime while we were underwater, 7:03 pm on March 10, had come and gone. I had turned 29 while on my first ever night dive. The last year of my 20s had begun with a bang. I make a silent wish that every year will bring such adventure, that no matter how old I get I won’t quit trying new things, that life will always be filled with wonder.


While in Colombia, we did our Advanced Diver Certification with Aquantis Dive School. The course consisted of two mandatory dives—a navigation dive and a deep (30 meters) dive—as well as three dives of our choice—a night dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, and a photography dive. The photos below were taken on the deep dive and the photography dive. It was our first time using the underwater casing for our Canon point & shoot. The camera and case worked splendidly. We, as underwater photographers, could use some more practice. Trying to keep steady is tricky. Other factors that influenced the photography include the fact that at 30 m colors begin to disappear. Red is, in fact, completely absent. As part of the dive, we were shown a roma tomato and asked to identify it. None of us could because it was gray! Additionally, and unfortunately, on the photography dive, we faced a somewhat strong current, which made it hard to stay in one place long enough to get a good photo. I should also say that the diving in Colombia, while good, pales in comparison to that in SE Asia. But all in all, we had a fabulous time and are glad we did the course and got to dive Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Strolling Through Cartagena

Cartagena is, by leagues, the most touristed city in Colombia. Huge cruise ships spill their passengers out into the city every week. Those wanting an appetizer-sized taste of Colombia before ordering the entire entree book a mini-vacation in Cartagena. Domestic tourists also flock there.

Cartagena is popular for many reasons. It’s sunny nearly all the time (and, I might mention, insanely humid). It has fantastic restaurants, from the plate of the day places where an entire meal is just a few bucks to the Anthony Bourdain approved ceviche restaurant, where appetizers start at about $15. As for hotels, take your pick. They’re everywhere and come in every style and every price range.

Of course, there’s also plenty to do. Choose from a variety of museums—the San Pedro Claver museum, which tells the story of the priest turned saint who was a savior to the slaves; the Inquisition Museum, which terrifies you with descriptions of all the ways in which non-believers were tortured during this crazy time in history; or the Gold Museum, which houses all kinds of amazing gold objects in a blessedly frigid building.

Museumed out? Then head to the beach. Though the sand and surf don’t compare to the beaches elsewhere in Colombia, the beachfront is the swanky area of town, home to towering high rise condos and hotels, and plenty of men and women willing to sell you use of a beach chair, give you a massage, or make you a drink.

You must spend at least some time at the fort, which rises over the old city and allows you a panoramic view of Cartagena. It’s only from up high that you realize that the old town is almost entirely surrounded by water, thus explaining the wall built to keep pirates out and the fort intended to ward off attacks.

You can’t help but laugh at the way the canons now point at the new beachfront development, wondering whether that is at all intentional.

And when you pass by the statue honoring the native Colombians who lived here long before the Spanish set up shop, you can’t help but wonder what the city, the country, the world was like back then.

You can also check out the market, a short bus ride away, and like markets throughout the world, ripe with the smells of fish, fruit, raw meat, and body odor.

During the four days we spent in Cartagena, we did all of that and more. But what we enjoyed most was simply wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, and admiring the well-preserved colonial architecture.

After entering the old town through the tower clock gate, we’d climb up on the wall and circle the city, passing lovey-dovey couples who have found new purposes for former canon cutouts and catching bits of soccer games played between the wall and the ocean.

We’d then go on an art treasure hunt of sorts, the city full of statues depicting heros, as well as ordinary people engaged in ordinary acts.

In some instances, art literally imitated life.

In other instances, life was simply accidentally artsy.

What was best about Cartagena, however, was that most of the time art and life weren’t separate things. That, I think, is a cool thing. After all, life is pretty darn beautiful.

Coming to America

While in Salento, the coffee region town where we toured Don Elias’s farm, we also went for a hike in the Valle de Cocora, home to enormous palm trees as well as rushing waterfalls, ten-mile views, and jewel-toned hummingbirds. At a nature preserve within the valley, we put our photography skills to the test trying to capture these beautiful but frenetic birds in our viewfinder. More often than not, the image that appears on our screen is of an empty branch or a lone birdfeeder. On occasion a blur of color acts as proof that there was indeed a hummingbird in the vicinity. We are, for certain, not going to win any awards for our wildlife photography.

We are, however, able to snap a photo of the three youngest members of the family that runs the preserve. The kids are happy to smile in exchange for a look at the image of themselves that we have captured. Though I don’t know for certain, it seems that this family spends nearly every day and every night on this preserve, tucked away in the clouds. As we pass the camera around for the kids to view, the matriarch of the family, an elderly woman whom I assume to be the grandmother if not the great-grandmother, comes over to take a look. She’d been talking to Jeff earlier, asking him about us and telling him about the preserve and its efforts to preserve the region’s water source. She peers hard at the viewfinder and smiles. She then turns to the children and with a big grin exclaims to them, “Now you’re going to America!” They look bewildered. I, at first, have no idea what she’s talking about. But then, as she hands back the camera, the image of the three kids staring back at us from the screen, I realize what she means, and I laugh. She beams at us, proud of her joke. And with that, we say our goodbyes, waving back at the same three smiling kids that we were taking with us to America.

Photoblog: On a Coffee Plantation in Colombia

For the second half of our trip, we headed south from Cartagena (a town we’ll return to in a future post), stopping briefly in Medellin before immersing ourselves in the coffee region. This lush, mountainous area of Colombia would quickly win the award for our favorite spot. We easily could have spent our entire trip in the area and have already decided that it’s a must on any future Colombia itineraries.

While in the area, we decided that, despite the fact that we’re not coffee drinkers ourselves, we had to visit a farm to see where the world’s best cup of joe comes from. On a recommendation from Enrique, the extremely helpful owner (?) of Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe, the place we are staying, we set off on an hour’s walk to the family farm of Don Elias. At four hectares, it’s a small farm, typical of the region, with the coffee, as well as other produce grown alongside the coffee–pineapples, oranges, lemons, sugar cane–sold via a co-op. Upon arriving, we’re greeted by the grizzled but friendly Don Elias himself, our own Juan Valdez.

He straps a basket around his waist, then in his reliable galoshes, leads us around the farm, his steps sure even on the steep incline.

He shows us the beans, which are red or yellow when ripe, depending on the variety of plant. He plucks and pulls, filling the bottom of the basket. The growing season is from May to November and during that period, the workers on the farm (his family plus a few hired hands) go out every two weeks, with each man gathering about 30 kilos per harvest.

Once we’ve picked enough beans, we return to the farmhouse, where Don Elias demonstrates the machine that shells the coffee, shows us how the beans are dried, and then, over a primitive stove, roasts up a pan full of beans. The coffee is sold to the co-op after it has been shelled and dried, at which point it weighs about half of what it did when it was picked.

Until the coffee was put on the stove, it had none of the distinctive smell we associate with coffee. As soon as it begin to heat up, however, the air filled with the aroma. Once properly roasted, the beans were transferred to another machine, where they were ground.

After the coffee was ground, the only task remaining was to brew it. Then it was time to enjoy a cup, which with a few heaping spoonfuls of sugar, Jeff and I were able to do. We’re definitely not converts, but we did buy a bag of the local coffee, which sits and waits for any coffee drinkers lucky enough to visit.

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.

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?