5 Things I Love About Colombia

I’m back in NYC after spending 2 wonderful weeks in Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia. As I look at the snow on the ground outside my house, I am silently kicking myself for not extending my trip another week. I suppose what they say is true…

Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.

Anyway, here’s a post about the things I came to love about Colombia.

5.  The beautiful absurdity. From groups of dogs humping passionately in the streets while no one (but me) seems to notice or give a damn to the belly dancer performing in the middle of the produce section as part of a promotion in the grocery store, Colombia was chock full of oddities that I have come to love and appreciate.

Bellydancer at Carrefour

4.  The weather. I know it may seem really shallow, but I’m being honest. My hair was amazing in Colombia. The humidity on the coast was doing wonders for my normally dry and super tightly coiled hair. I was able to reduce the amount of moisturizing product and time needed to care for my hair while in the country thanks to the heat and humidity. My skin was clear and glowing as well, so my makeup routine was very minimal too. No wonder there are so many beautiful coastal Colombianas – the gorgeous weather permeates their pores.

Santa Marta Sunset

3.  The coffee and snacks. One small cup of very strong, freshly brewed coffee cost less than $1 and was more than enough caffeine to get me through the day. If I went out drinking until very late at night, I was also sure to sip a cup before heading home to help me sober up a bit. I also fell in love with cocada (see the negra and blanca versions, below).

IMG_0518IMG_0520

Those were my favorite beach-side snacks with simple ingredients – coconut, sugar, cream. Yummy!

2.  La musica, la fiesta, la rumba. Being a New Yorker with both Puerto Rican and Dominican family, I grew up listening and dancing to salsa, bachata, and merengue. Growing up in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood and having a West African boyfriend, I am also quite familiar with various styles of music from each culture such as reggae, soca, calypso, makossa, compas, soukouss, and coupe decale. I know and love all of this music. I get lost in it whenever it’s played in various circles back home. In Cartagena, however, it was like all of my musical worlds collided. I didn’t have to scan through various radio stations or visit parties in various neighborhoods to hear each style. Oh, no. It was as though everything was easily accesible and beautifully mixed so that it was both familiar to my ears and new to me all at once. Colombia is where I fell in love with this salsa song by Joe Arroyo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWBf9hfW_4Y

It’s also where I learned about vallenato and my favorite type of music featured below – champeta

1.  The people! While in Cartagena and Santa Marta I met some of the most lovable, hospitable, genuine people. Just about everyone I encountered was warm and welcoming – they all wanted to make sure I had a great time in their country. And before you get all cynical on me… No, I don’t believe that the warm and friendly treatment was because I was a turista aka walking cajero automatico (ATM). In Cartagena, many people thought I was local until I opened my mouth. And even then it took a bit more probing to figure out that I was indeed a gringa. For the most part, people were kind to me and I left a bit of my heart with friends who are now considered family in Colombia.

One of several adorable children that befriended me in Cartagena. I taught her how to pose and collect money from tourists that kept taking her pictures without permission… With her mother’s permission, of course 😉

   IMG_0451  IMG_0460

The Alex Rocha Youth Center – where I spent one week teaching English classes

   IMG_0522  IMG_0523

The owners and staff at El Sol de la India Restaurant and Hostel who have adopted me as their niece

Ai, Colombia… Te extraño mucho.  

On the Mend

After I wrote my last post, I called home, had an ugly cry, and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I figured there was a lesson to be learned from this experience so I waited for it to be revealed. In the meantime, I ran cold water over both ankles and wrapped the most injured ankle in a cold towel.

A few hours had passed since my arrival and I knew I had to get moving. I called a taxi driver, Mauricio, whose number was posted on the fridge and went off to the nearest town. God bless Mauricio! He took me to the grocery store and helped me procure some bandages, pain cream, and ice for my ankles. He also waited patiently while I purchased my groceries. Two hours, 40K pesos in cab fare, and 57K pesos for a week’s worth of groceries later, I was feeling much better.

I took my first shower with hot water in 8 days, poured a glass of wine, and cooked dinner and lunch for the next day. I ate on the balcony and felt so humbled, blessed, and grateful for the opportunity to witness this

20130116-135308.jpg

My grand plans for hiking in the national park and exploring the nearby towns were foiled by my accident. Perhaps the lesson was that I needed to have several seats? Learning how to slow down and relax in this beautiful oceanside apartment has been a wonderful end to my vacation in Colombia.

Humility in Santa Marta

20130116-133511.jpg

I woke up on Monday morning feeling pretty darn excited. The cold/sinusitis/allergies I’d acquired on Wednesday was easing up. This was the day I was going to take the door-to-door service to my beachside condo rental in Santa Marta, Colombia. Originally, I wanted to leave at 8am, but I was told around 7:45 that it would be a 9am departure instead. No matter. I was going to go with the flow. Around 9am I was patiently waiting for my shuttle to arrive. When I felt antsy, I reminded myself that: 1) this is Colombia and nothing ever works as smoothly or as punctually as I would like, and 2) this was a vacation so there was no need to rush anywhere.

20130116-133141.jpg

I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was feeling pretty blessed to enjoy the life of luxury for a few days. I boarded the bus, paid for my ticket, and sort of blended in with rest of the Colombians – save for the fact that, as usual, I was the only morena there. After picking up passengers throughout Cartagena we were off around 9:40am. We passed through Baranquilla and made 2 timely stops for snacks and the bathroom.

I knew I was likely the first stop because I was staying a little outside of the city of Santa Marta. The lady whose condo I was renting, Lore, told me to tell the driver to drop me off at Playa Dormida. It’s no problem, she said. Everyone knows where it is – it’s easy to find, she said. Once we arrived, the driver started asking me for directions. Ummm… Sir? I have absolutely no idea. And you’re talking too damn fast.

The driver pulled over and asked some garbage men who seemed to tell him directions that sounded like, “Keep going that way.” Translation, they had no idea where it was either. Again, the driver asks me where I’m going. Now, even if I were fluent in Spanish, I still wouldn’t have a clue. I showed him the address and directions on AirBnB and that didn’t seem to help. Eventually he let me out with my backpack and suitcase on the side of the highway. So much for door-to-DOOR service.

I called Lore and asked her for directions again. I was certain I could see the building, but was uncertain how to get there. Cross the highway, she said. Ok. I got over half the road and made it to a little embankment to get to the other side. Once the traffic cleared, I began to cross.

And that’s when I busted my ass. I twisted both ankles as I tumbled onto the road. All I could do was sit there by the guard rails and breathe the pain away as cars, busses, and horse-drawn carts zipped past me. I recovered and limped my way down to what I prayed was the condo entrance. An armed security guard approached me as I passed to warn me – keep an eye on your cellphone. I briefly wondered if he had seen the whole Morena Takes a Tumble moment and then decided I didn’t care. I needed to get into the condo and off my feet quickly. He asked me which apartment I was going to and said someone would accompany me once I made it down the road and to the right.

I limped a bit more down what felt like a never-ending unpaved road as an empty taxi and little children with water toys went past me. I reached a security hut, gave the guard my name, and prayed that the guy on the mototaxi was the one who would give me a lift. Nope. He was there to give some lady with no bags and flats on a lift to the entrance. 0_O

I watched in disbelief as they sped away through the last security checkpoint. Bags in shaky hands, I gimped past the final guard and made it to the entrance. I’ve never been so happy to sit still in my life. Both of my ankles are swollen as I write this -the left one being the biggest and throbbing. I need some ice and ace bandages but that requires standing long enough to get back down to reception to ask in broken Spanish and several gestures for a taxi to the market.

This is the point in my trip where I’m completely humbled. The reality that I’m alone and vulnerable has finally hit me. I’m hoping that tomorrow will be a better day because I can see the pool and the beach from my balcony and it would be a shame to waste this beautiful experience by gimping and moping around any further.

Islas Rosarios

20130111-160055.jpg

Islas Rosarios can totally be skipped, in my opinion… Unless you sail there on a small and fast boat that goes straight to Playa Blanca. We sailed 40 minutes to I have no clue where and spent an hour at an aquarium. I opted not to buy a ticket to see marine life I’ve seen plenty of times in other countries. We then sailed another 20-30 minutes to the beach.

Highlight of this trip? The coco rice they served for lunch was the best I’ve had since I’ve been here. (Edit: The coco rice I had on the island no longer holds this title. My friend’s wife and a restaurant in the walked city are currently vying for the top spot.) As for the actual beach? It’s pretty, but between the vendors and 50 million guys trying to sell banana boat and jet ski rides, it wasn’t appealing for me. There wasn’t really a big area to swim/float without having hoards of people nearby.

I think I prefer smaller sails. While they are usually much more expensive than the 35,000 pesos (about $20) I paid for the voyage and lunch, it lacked character. There weren’t any complimentary drinks flowing and the boat was quite slow. If you’d like to visit, here are my suggestions:

  • eat breakfast before you leave
  • take a smaller boat that goes directly to the beach
  • bring a cooler full of drinks and snacks
  • bring cash in small bills in case you ignored my advice above because you will want fruit, ice cream or a coconut snack on the way home
  • if you listen to nothing else, take this voyage with good company and have a great attitude – your company and attitude determine what type of trip you will have.

Despite the shortcomings of the island for me, I’m glad I went. I did get a few good shots and took some video footage of the cruise.

Sola

Since it was a holiday (3 Kings Day) when I arrived on Sunday and Monday, I had to wait until Tuesday to activate my cell phone.

20130110-115625.jpg
And, because I happen to have an iPhone, I could only get the necessary microSIM card by visiting a provider’s main office in another part of Cartagena called Bocagrande. This is what I had to do:

  • Hop in a cab and negotiate a fair price to the Claro office in Bocagrande
  • tell the receptionist what you want, show photo of passport
  • take a number and wait in line, go upstairs and pay for SIM card
  • get your debit card declined because your bank likely forgot to note that you would be traveling abroad -despite telling them well in advance
  • switch to another card and pray this bank remembered you’d be traveling
  • try to call your friend to confirm lunch date and wonder why your phone isn’t working
  • walk back to salesperson who helped you previously and ask about phone plan options
  • go back upstairs to cashier and stand in long line to purchase plan
  • be told you have to use the computer behind you to purchase prepaid plan
  • navigate computer purchasing system then get back in line to pay for plan
  • hop in another cab and negotiate a decent rate back home

Sounds simple enough, right? Now do all of this without using any English whatsoever. Yea, not so simple anymore. I felt so accomplished when I was finally able to activate my cell. This was the first time I navigated outside of the walled city and took care of business without one of my local Colombian friends accompanying me. This was the first time I felt like a proper adult.

My Spanish comprehension and production has improved quite rapidly since my arrival 4 days ago. Doing things alone (sola) are also getting easier as a result. I imagine that by the end of my stay I should be even better.