A Travellerspoint blog

November 2008

Giving Thanks

A cross-cultural eating extravaganza!

rain 8 °C

Our travel has taken a little hiatus until the Christmas holidays. Since Medellin we have really felt the weight of true office work. Except for a few fairly frustrating days with a groups of unresponsive and spoiled 8 and 9 year olds out at our paradise of a camp, Bochica, we have been hammering away to the sound of protesters, car alarms, bus brakes, ruthless honking and the tap-tap of computer keys. Its not as exciting as it sounds, don't worry. However, this past week has been particularly eventful as we celebrated Thanksgiving and went to our first 'asado' (Colombian BBQ).

My friend Cody was here visiting for a few days last week and we were able to get some practice in as tour guides here, and we needed it. You could call it an adventurous weekend starting with a late night turned into long morning suffering the wrath of an ironically named drink called a "Be Happy". We checked out the local version of the Exploratorium called "Maloka" where we made wine (funny how I had to travel 3000 miles from my hometown in the CA wine region to make wine), and did a bunch of other nerdy stuff before walking miles to the nearest Transmilenio stop.

Last weeks reprieve turned into frustration with the rowdy group at camp and I wouldn't go so far as to say it settled down as I would it got much better! We didn't find out until Wednesday morning that the second camp we were supposed to be doing this week on Thursday and Friday was canceled due to washed out roads. Welcome to the Jungle! Not having had plans for Thanksgiving, we threw around a few ideas until it was decided (at 1pm on Thursday, mind you) that Thanksgiving for 12 would be at casa de Marty and Monica. We rushed out of the office a couple hours early to pick up whatever Thanksgiving items we could. Turkey- not so much an option here until Christmas, and even then its pricey so we went with chicken. Its the only whole bird that fits in our toaster oven anyway. Sides of mashed potatoes, gravy, a few pieces of sliced turkey resembling olive loaf a co-worker managed to find, homemade cornbread, raviolis- Marty's family's tradition, and green bean casserole with homemade "French's" onions (Campbells cream of mushroom soup was a stretch, there was no way we were going to find those tasty fried onion things that go on top) and all topped off with a pumpkin/apple tart. Wine and champagne on to wash it down. We really represented for the Americans treating our guests to their first Thanksgiving and I believe they are all currently planning their trips to the states next year!

In exchange for Thursday's buffet (and to celebrate some birthdays and the end of a long year at the Y) our boss, Alveiro, invited us and the rest of the office over for a real Colombian BBQ at his place. It was nice to hang out with our co-workers outside of the office and do a little taste-testing of the local fare. On the list of things we reconginzed: Carne (meat in thin and huge steaks), mazorca (corn on the cob done on the grill), chorizo (spicy sausage), potatoes (boiled and salted- like what they would be before you cut and dress them for potato salad), guacamole, pico de gallo, and beer. Things that I recognized and I would have rather not: Murcillo (blood sausage- not good no matter how you cook it), and Chunchillo (intestines of some kind filled with something even grosser). Of those 2, Murcillo I had tried in Spain and knew better than to go down that road, Chunchillo was new to me. I tried it. It now tops the list as the grossest thing either of us have eaten, follow closely by the hormigas culonas (ass ants). Now, I could just finish there with that image in your head. Mmmmm, yeah, that's right, intestines. But, out of pity, I'll move on.

The asado ended with cake, dancing and the watching of Shakira music videos (the Colombians love their Shakira) which is when we took our cue to take off. Back at home we settled in for an evening of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, our official kick-off of the holiday movie season.

After getting to celebrate with friends and the closest thing to family we have here, it reminded me of everyone I love and miss at home, but it also made me think about all the things I am so lucky to be able to have and do here. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I owe many thanks to all the people who got me/us here and for everyone and everything (ahem, Skype) the keeps me sane and connected. It really is an amazing to get to come see another country for all that it is and then some, and I really do appreciate all the opportunities I have here. While I could definitely leave behind the smog, crowded transportation, often insane work schedule and general unease of living in a foreign city, I would be neglecting so many of the reasons I came here and ultimately the things that keep me going here. So cheers to all, near and far; to all the things we came "here" for, all the things that keep us "here" and the little something extras we get on top; Happy Holidays!

Posted by tuffchix 18:54 Archived in Colombia Tagged events Comments (0)

Medellín

Another look at city life

rain 20 °C

Pictures should be up soon on Shutterfly!

"The city of eternal Spring" is Colombia's second largest city after Bogotá. With a mere 2.4 million people you shouldn't be fooled by its relatively small population (Bogotá is home to nearly 8 million inhabitants). The city itself is a bustling traveller's destination. Not for the easily bothered by constant requests on the street for money, patronage, or attention. While it has marketed itself as one of Colombia's premier tourist destinations, home to museums, plazas, art, history, and flora and fauna to boot, I wouldn't say its the most leisurely of Colombia's cities. But, I guess if you are going to South American city with over 2 million people, can you really claim to be looking for leisure?

Luckily, we were able to relax, for perhaps a little more than we liked on our 10.5 hour bus ride from Bogotá to Medellín and our 9.5 hour bus ride back (please note that tour agencies all claim the ride is 8 hours. Ha!) Nevertheless the frigidly air conditioned, Vallenato-music playing ride showcased gorgeous scenery for nearly the entire trip. There aren't so much highways connecting major cities, or small cities for that matter. Rather, winding 2 lane roads barely wide enough for the semis to traverse that carry cargo and passengers day and night. The result is that you drive through jungle canopy layered above river basins covering mango and banana tree lined streets dotted with waterfalls, tiny little towns peddling food and wares and occasionally opening up to see a view of the entire valley in between you and the next mountain. Its stunning.

We arrived in Medellín to a highly recommended backpackers/hippie hostel which welcomes visitors with a free BBQ on Friday nights, hot showers, coffee all day, a beer fridge stocked to your liking, internet, breakfast included daily, access to a full kitchen and happens to be conveniently located next to a huge grocery store and the metro. Oh yeah, Medellín has a real metrorail system. Like on tracks. Where like people actually are allowed to exit the train before the frenzy of passengers tries to get on and "Exit Only" turnstiles so to not clog up traffic leaving the station. Genius! Ok, but the hostel is great. Great, like-minded travelers who are just looking for a place to chill out after a day of doing whatever it is you do in Medellín.

So about what you do in Medellín; Its a cultural and art highlight of Colombia. Most famous for the massive collection of work by Fernando Botero whose numerous portraits and sculptures of fat people brighten up the streets and museum walls alike. While he manages to depict a very whimsical portrayal of each person or object, his historical and social commentaries are not forgotten. Check out some of his portraits here and sculptures here. The Plaza Botero and the biggest exhibit at the famous Museo de Antioquia (Antioquia being the department that Medellín is in), are dedicated to Botero's work and his personal collections. I like art but art museums are generally not the first thing on my list of places to visit when I go to a city. Botero however, I would like to meet (he is still alive). His stuff just kinda makes you giggle.

We did manage to pry ourselves away from staring at caricature-like statues of disproportionate men, women and dogs long enough to walk all over the city. Our first day was actually a mix of walking, metro-ing, and getting lost. We started by meeting with the folks at the YMCA in Medellin to hear a little about their programs. It turned into one of the more interesting history lessons in my life as we learned all about La Comuna 13 (a large sector in western Medellin) that was literally the battle ground between drug cartels, paramilitaries, militia and government intervention up until about 6 years ago. Unfortunately it was the civilians that paid the price for the violence and fight over money, territory, power, influence, etc. The effect of which you can still see throughout the city in the mangled limbs of beggars on the streets, public art dedicated to the lost and (still) missing and at the same time a true jovial spirit of the relative freedom and security most now enjoy. For these reasons the Y in Medellin has a much stronger focus on peace and 'convivencia' (peacefully living together).

Next we headed to lunch in El Poblado, a touristy bar and restaurant neighborhood in the southern part of the city led to a stroll through the Parque Zoologico de Santa Fe, aka Medellin's Zoo. Initially unimpressive, the small zoo is home to big cats, native and non-native, hippos, your standard assortment of African Plain animals; Elephants, Giraffes, Antelope, Zebra, etc. and a really impressive collection of birds, most of which are native to South America. Wandering a little further north we ventured up a million stairs (ok, like 300) for a pretty good view of the city atop El Pueblito Paisa, a replica of what a typical village in the region would look like. Complete with 'town bar', chapel, replica of an old colonial home and plenty of vendors to remind you what century you are really in. The sculpture garden coming down from Pueblito Paisa was unimpressive but we were ready to get back to the hostel anyway for the BBQ!!!

Turns out not many Americans are into Colombia right now, or at least not at the hostel that we were staying at but we couldn't complain as the Dutch, French, Italian, British, Spanish, German and Colombian company wasn't lacking. We had a great time just chatting it up with other travelers, getting the inside scoop on other places to see in Colombia and recounting our own tales thus far.

Day 2 could be affectionately called the day of strike outs and disappointments followed by successes. Mango Maduro was an awesome find courtesy of Lonely Planet South America for a fresh Bendeja Paisa (typical Medellinesen lunch). We hopped across the street to Parque Bolivar and wandered under the huge tropical trees, past guitar-playing old men dressed in suits and to the Metropolitan Cathedral constructed with more bricks than any other church in South America. Our quest for the Parque de los Pies Descalzados, a zen park where you can take off your shoes and walk through different kinds of rock and sand before dipping them in different wading pools was fruitless. When we finally found the place it started to pour; welcome to the tropics! We couldn't be too upset as the rain forced us inside the Museo de Antioquia and Plaza Botero where we spend the afternoon being all artsy-fartsy. Strike out number two came later that night at an attempt at seeing one play only to end up at a small indie theater that had gone all out do make the audience feel a part of their production of 5 intertwined tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Candelabras, a death march on the accordian, a dimly lit house set a great stage for "4 Mujeres", literally 4 Women, but is a tale spun together of 5 of his works, Ulalume, Berenice, Ligeia, and Lenore all broken up by a creepy dude reciting The Raven- aren't you proud Dad-- your literary interests have apparently rubbed off a bit.

Our last full day we had learned our lesson and got out early before the rain came. Just in time to take in the beautiful botanical gardens filled with tropical plants, birds, animals and any gardeners dream set-up. The orchids were awesome and made even more cool by the iguanas climbing in the trees a few meters away. After marveling at the gift shop which included an exotic plant nursery (you too can own your own carnivorous plants and rare orchids!) we strolled through the nearby Parque de Los Deseos and outside Natura (an Exploritorium-like interactive museum) just before getting caught in a downpour. Soaked, but satisfied with the morning we headed back to grab lunch before taking advantage of Medellin's MetroCable. Literally a gondola that is part of the metro system to reach and transport the populations on the mountains surrounding the city. A metro ticket will get you all the way to the Candelaria (the area at the highest point on the metro map) where we were greeted by 2 eager 8 year olds who dished on all the important info on the MetroCable built just a few years ago and the more recently opened library poised on the top of the hill. The views of the city were a little hazy but still pretty impressive.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the ride up to the Candelaria was the evidence of how quickly Medellin is "izing". That's to say modernizing, industrializing, standardizing, and globalizing. The MetroCable was installed only a few years ago and its already its obvious that among the thousands of houses stacked almost literally on top of each other and pressed together tightly, separated by crumbling roads, falling roofs and other marks of what most definitely used to be one of Medellin's more impoverished areas, things are improving. In particular around the "metro stops" on the mountain, fresh paint and new tablecloths are brighten restaurants while plants and new signs attract people to other stores and shops. However these marks of modernization do not exist a mere few blocks away where MetroCable traffic isn't nearly as heavy. "Izing" I tell you. And its all over the city in different forms, its just so blatant in La Candelaria as you can see the entire neighborhood as you approach and leave dangling just a few feet overhead.

Our last night in Medellin we decided to make dinner and relax with the other hostelers while recounting our weekend. We are glad to have visited Medellin and found the 3 days ample time to see almost all the things we wanted to see. We have also decided that if we have to pick a city to be living in, we are glad that its Bogota. Medellin is a very cool city with lots of things to offer but its obvious that the reputation Medellin has earned for its history of violence and drugs is still being shed. As a result their rapid "izing" has made it very tourist friendly in infrastructure but with many businesses and citizens still struggling to recover emotionally or economically.

Like I mentioned before, Medellin is a city for travelers not tourists but if you have your travelers had on, then by all means; Enjoy!

Posted by tuffchix 15:48 Archived in Colombia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Bochica Camp

Where the rainforest meets crazy!

all seasons in one day 15 °C

It has been hard to concentrate on anything but the election since getting back to Bogota after this weekend, but our time at Bochica Camp, the YMCA's only campsite in Colombia, deserves more than just a nod.

The campsite itself is its own little rainforest paradise just an hour south of Bogota. Past a huge 'salto' (waterfall), down the windy cliffside road, along a contaminated thus smelly, although picturesque Bogota River, you arrive at Bochica Camp. The pictures say more than I ever could so you will have to take a look!

Like any campsite filled with high schoolers, things get a little crazy. However, the constant sound of flowing water, amazing flowers, trees, coffee plants (yes, I saw my first live coffee plant and coffee berries growing on it!), adorable little red roof cabins connected by cobblestone pathways and nearly hidden by rainforest vegetation were just the ticket to enjoy camp in a new way.

It all started on Friday morning when the kids arrived (ahead of schedule) and our week of planning was shot to hell. You see, we had planned for 4 days of activities, games, stories, skits, songs and more for a group of fairly good English speakers only to be notified as they were walking in the door that they actually didn't really speak all that much English. Awesome. Enter stress. Like most first time campers, they were shy and reserved, nervous about speaking what little English they knew (turns out a lot of them actually could understand us pretty well). Meanwhile Marty and I are half mad that our week of planning just got blown to smithereens and half scrambling for what we were going to do for the next 4 days with a group that didnt have a clue what was going on.

Like most things at camp, you just take what you get and go with it. So, as the kids warmed up, remembered that "oh yes, I have taken English before" and started to relax, we got the show going. The games began, literally, and we just tweaked the schedule as we went. A lot. But it worked, and the kids loved it, so much so they didn't want to leave (thankfully not an option), and they had nothing but good things to say about their camp experience.

Aside from walking away with a nasty head cold, this weekend's work was probably the first time I have walked away from something I have done with/for/on behalf of the Y, that I am proud of. Its definitely more the kind of work I was hoping to do here. Still a pretty big focus on English, but the reality of the weekend was the English level meant that a lot of our activities, explanations, discussions, etc were either English and Spanish or purely Spanish. Which meant the cultural exchange was mutual. More importantly, I have spent more than half of my life a part of a community of campers who have learned to and love to live in community with one another. To learn from each other and to stretch yourself while pushing others to do the same. In coming to Colombia, I was and still do hope that these are the kind of experiences I have and I provide for others, whether it be in or out of camps. It is this kind of service that the Y promotes and this kind of service leadership that I came here to do. I guess what I'm saying is; FINALLY!

Finally I feel like I am in the right place doing the right things, and when you are thousands of miles from home doing things you never thought you would be doing in a place you never thought you would be doing them, the question of whether you are doing the right thing is a constant. Thankfully, there are weekends like Bochica Camp to remind me that I have figured at least a few things out and seem to be on the right track. Yesssss!

Unfortunately, like all good things, camp comes to an end. We made the trek back into Bogota on Monday to arrive back at our apartment which was roommate free!! A nice little surprise ending to an accomplished weekend.

Since then we have been glued to CNN watching election coverage (Wow!) and I have managed to squeeze in another not-so-small adventure to the Colombian post office. Apparently 2 kilograms (less than 4 LBS) is the max for any package you want the Colombian postman to carry. Overweight packages require a bus ride to nowhere, a walk even further, an entry process not unlike a CIA background check, a hefty fee, a bunch of paperwork and the joy of hauling it all back on crowded transportation after getting out of the post office just in time to make rush hour traffic! Nevertheless, it was soooo worth it. If it hadn't taken so long, I never would have gone back to the Y office to meet up with Marty wrapping up English club and thus never would have had the priviledge of trying a Santanderean treat; ass ants. Read here and take a look here. Ok, but really-- getting home and being able to open 2 boxes filled with Trader Joe's goodies, Halloween candy, a cookbook for the oven challenged, cute decorations and a whole lotta love just makes your day- Thanks mom, dad and grandma!

This weekend we are taking our comp days earned from camp so we will have a nice 5 day weekend. Looking into Medellin in what will probably be our last big break before the holidays. We hope all is well at home!

Posted by tuffchix 18:14 Archived in Colombia Tagged educational Comments (0)

Presidential Election 2008

From Colombia and Beyond

sunny 17 °C

As Americans abroad, we spend a lot of time responding to political questions about how things work, who does what, who believes what, what we think will happen, etc. While addressing the questions and concerns about various people, places and plans in the US, I often find my self walking a very fine line between my own criticisms and the reality of issues our world faces today. Precariously balancing the attepmt to break the stereotypes of a nation strangled by its own overextension and truthfully identifying many of its faults can and often does leave many confused, least of all, me.

Nevertheless, in what I have no doubt will be one of the most historical and memorable moments of my life, my confusion and criticism have been put on hold, at least momentarily, to celebrate what it means to be a witness to true optimism and hope. The culmination of hours, months and years in a country plagued by doubt and disappointed was the showing of millions of people who came out to take a stance one way or another, to make a change for what they hope would be the better.

Now, I have been sitting here for the last 30 minutes typing and erasing, typing and erasing, trying to figure out what this means for someone spending 9 months in a foreign country trying to make a difference in the lives of others in what I hope will be the better, while trying to "figure out where to go in life", and I just don't know. What I do know is that, it feels like it just got easier. Maybe its a nervous excitement knowing I will be going back to a country different than the one I left. Maybe its apprehension that the seemingly giant steps in a new and positive direction, won't come to fruition. Maybe its joy in feeling like I can actually get behind US citizens for their ability to not only have an opinion but to do something about it. Maybe it feels like I'm not on my own in making a pretty big leap of faith here and hoping for the best--and that that is not a careless thing for once. Or, it could be that it just generates an 'even the things we hoped but never expected to see, are actually happening' feeling that extends beyond political arenas to personal and professional ones where there may also be new doors to open.

While I can't quite put my finger on why it feels different now than it did yesterday morning, I do know this; for the first time that I can remember, I am actually proud, not just thankful, lucky, or fortunate, but proud to be American. Not just for who we elected, but for the spirit and enthusiasm a nation, often criticized for its apathy, showed in making its choices; red or blue, black or white, male or female, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. We truly have made a difference.

Posted by tuffchix 08:20 Archived in USA Tagged events Comments (0)

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