Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The plane! The plane!

or Crossing The Darien Gap.

The Pan-American highway is incomplete.


The space inbetween is called the Darien Gap; Rainforest/swampland on the border of Colombia & Panama.  Crossing the Gap is very expensive by air & very dangerous by land (due to rebel activity).  But, it must be done.

The options are are #1 to take a series of 4 or more lanchas (speedboats) through the San Blaas Islands, followed by a jeep to Panama City, or #2 get to Puerto Obaldia, the first stop in Panama, & fly out.  Another option is to take a 3-5 day "cruise" through the islands for about 400$.  I am aiming for #2, which has a much shorter timeframe, ends up being the cheapest, & especially because it doesn't involve 6hr speedboat trips from hell, as I've been recounted.

The road north from Medellin.  One moment drinking fresh squeezed orange juice at an amazing finca (cottage/weekend villa) with tennis courts, trucking less than 150km in 5 hours with overnight at a truckstop as home, & sleeping on the deck of a cargo ship the next night.

Turbo is a shithole of a town.  Also a necessary pitstop in taking the morning boat out.  The water in port is like sludge.  Saw more than a few dead mice floating in it, being nipped by the mutant minnows.  There is nothing appealing about it.  It's a disgusting little town.  But, being prompted by a new friend, Hector, who works security for the cargo ship, I remembered the people are very friendly, & despite it's unrefined exterior, it's safe.

My only knowledge of the speedboat passage is from my friend Kelvin who soldiered through a 6 hour stint on these same waters.  He equates it with a level of hell.

Hey, this isn't so bad!  This is actually pretty awesome, with a big smile on!  The sea spray is like bleach white fireworks along to my music.  I was cunning enough to get a spot at the back of the speedboat, where I might get soaked, but at least not queasy.  The water colour changed 3 times, from sickened grey, to the comforting tan brown of all rivers in Colombia, to a more fierce blue of the Caribbean sea.

Next stop:
Fireflies.  I was wondering when I would see them again, or if they'd ever existed.  This is in Capurgana, a little village where you get your exit stamp for heading to Panama.  The graveyard has a horse standing sleeping in the middle.  The frogs coo like doves & chirp like from video games.  Locals stop me on the street, asking if I want company to wherever I am walking to, or afterwards, & one particularly heavy night out, I asked a friend if anything really wild was beyond my recollection, since everyone in town seemed to know me, or at least know me as The Canadian.

The ocean wears it's way along the side of the cobbled sidewalk 10ft from my door.  There's reefs & great snorkelling all along this area.  I was swimming with my friend Camilo, a future ichthyologist - a fish researcher, and a great guide to have in the water!  He pointed out lion fish, starfish & pencil urchins.  Crabs & fish always scatter, reminding me that Humans are the only creature who provokes fear into every other species of animal (The Once & Future King), even when we just want to say I am one of you.

Getting the exit stamp is a constant Come back tomorrow/Come back later, until their system's down & then it's Come back in the morning before your boat.  Listen.  Not being an idiot, I am cursed to know that when opening at 2pm really means opening at 4:30, the office will not be open before 7am on a Sunday.

So, not panicking of course, & still leaving tomorrow at 7am with no exit stamp, boat ticket or plane ticket - which you cannot buy in advance or until you arrive.

The first two sorted themselves out easily enough.  When we arrived at Obaldia, we were just barely too late.  The plane is full.  They were weighing the passengers & their cargo, adding them up to see if they could possibly squeeze on a few more bodies.  In this town, in which I've been instructed not to go to early if at all possible we will be stuck for the next 3 days.

There were 6 extra people in line, so 4 of us banded together - Toby (Australia), Tyler & Cole (Texas).  An french girl opted for the lure of the sea.  She tells us "The first boat is 2hrs/20$, then there's a second boat, then the jeep is 40km/15$ & we might be able to make it there today."  Too good to be true.  We'll never know if she made it or when.  It's that second boat that's a mystery of time & price, & I've heard a couple stories of getting stranded without knowing when the boat will arrive.  It's not as interesting, but at this point, I do have a timeline, although I've heard the islands are beautiful.

The days are too hot to do anything but sweat.  85% humidity beats you down.  Funny that in a place that's little more than a 2 roads off the main square, you can still discover "there's a place that sells vegetables?"

Finally, our day has arrived!  We'd been teasing about sneaking out early & locking the others in to ensure our spots before the boat arrives from Capurgana.  We're on the list no problem, with payment upon arrival in Panama City.  It's our turn to coach the new arrivals on what the next few days will consist of.  2 French girls join our crew, while we wait.  One plane arrives on time to take our luggage & is coming back in the afternoon for us.  Oh yeah?  Raised eyebrows.  After counting down the hours the past couple days, our future is still in limbo.

Card games or anything.  We decide if/when we arrive & discover our luggage strangely "didn't make it", at least we have arrived/have left.  We had no other option.

"The plane hasn't arrived yet."
"The plane hasn't taken off yet."
"We're going the wrong way!"
"We're flying very low to the water."
"It's safe to say we're beyond turning around now."
Not pessimism.  Realism.

It takes us over 2 hours to get through airport security.  Searching & dogs & waiting & filling out cards & writing & waiting & going through individually, etc.  Finally we stood in a narrow freshly painted hallway overlooking the waiting area, waiting, waiting & waiting...patience stringing us along...  Haven't we been in Panama 3 days already?

This is where I recieve the message from home saying the Canadian Postal Workers' strike is over (Hallelujah!), & I have a a doctor's appointment at the Infectious Disease department of the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.  Before I left I had been waiting on my bloodwork.  I think it's safe to guess I have that Nile parasite afterall.  Every night I battle mosquitoes, mostly losing battles the past few days, & I hope there's no malaria in my bloodstream.  Maybe I should have yearly checks at the HSC...

In the meantime,
PegCity, meet PanCity.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Prohibido Olvidar

Friday was when I found out there was a futbol game this weekend.  Apparently it's not just any game, it's the second of the 2 game final Bogota (Equidad) against Medellin (Atletico Nacional), & it's here in Medellin.  Plus, I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but South Americans take their futbol very seriously.

I made plans to meet up with my friends to watch the game, but there are televisions everywhere.  It's impossible to miss.  When Medellin scored, everyone jumped & rallied.  Electric pulse.  Everytime they entered the zone & missed, it was as if the fans were being whipped.  Overtime - shootout.  When they made that winning save...

I was almost hit by at least 2 fireworks.  Lucky enough not to see anyone fall off a streetlight.  Cars were stopped, showered with flags, flour, confetti & people.  The last train was filled with off-duty police officers heading home, just when the party was heating up.  Saw a canvas backed truck filled with police back away from the chaos.  Learned some new songs: the Atletico Nacional anthem, & 'Somos campeones otra vez!'  Made friends & enemies.  Got in a flour war, & lost handily.  Walking down the street people would doubletake & say "What happened to you?!"  It was like someone held me down & pasted me like a geisha.

Sunday was slow & lazy.  Even though I didn't meet up with my friends, we were all cursing the abundance of Aguardiente. 

Los jugadores de Atlético Nacional celebra su decimo primer título

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No te la puedes perder

The universe is has a silly way of keeping me on the edge of my seat.  Wandering aimlessly is not exactly my style.  However, once I finally get to planning, or worse yet scheduling, time seems to speed up.

Standing at a truckstop at impending dusk en route.  My back-up plan just left.  I'm standing straight, holding my breath & playing with the loose strings from my bag.  I'm 2 1/2 hours outside the city & even then it's at least 30 minutes to get to where I'm going.  I told Kelvin I would be there for Game 7.  Hopefully I'll make it for the last period, or overtime, or at all.

Was this a bad idea?  Adversity.  I will overcome.  Rejection Therapy.  I get rejected alot on the road.  Sometimes I forget.  Maybe I'm getting cocky.  I have to call Kelvin, & let him know.  Let him know what?  Did he even get my message?  Do the others know?  Will I be imposing?
After at least an hour in fading light, strong silent Rafael qualms some of my doubts.

The moonrise is ultradramatic.  A spotlight rising in the sky.  There's a photoshoot on the mountains, or we're approaching the nightly Medellin thunderstorm.

A stranger welcomes me in.  Typical.  An Australian; even better!  Mona wiggles as she wags her tail & Anna is making chocolate covered waffles in the kitchen.  Yes!  I forgot how much I love this place.
Hugs, kisses, & a firm headshake from a classy opponent.  It's the middle of the 3rd period & the Boston Bruins are about to win the Stanley Cup.

A short time later, I am catching up with friends on a matress laid out on the terrace.  Lightning, but no rain.  "No!  You can't leave before the weekend!"  Do I have a choice?/Plans are for losers.

Homemade bread & peanut butter, someone's always cooking something up, always music being played.  Where the door is always left open & there are siempre waffles.
Open arms are a great feeling.  I should have never doubted.  It's good to be back.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Running from the Heat: Aftermath

Monday is the best day to leave.  Even though there's yoga at 12:30, salsa class isn't until 8, so you've got enough time to get away before the gravity reverses itself & pulls you back in.

The girls, Melissa & Jo (Halifax), are already probably on the Nothern coast drinking on the beach.  After being there leaning on 3 weeks, they finally worked up the will to leave.  Surely they are coming back with a vengeance.  (According to Facebook.)

The new crowd at Jovita's Hostel in Cali are probably out at Las Brisas on the outskirts of town, the hot ticket for Monday night salsa.  Taxi-ing & sweating, sweating.  Dancing shoes.  Last Monday I was talked into going, but thought I might be around for the next one.  Monday's always the best day to leave.

I'm standing in a pasture among some hills.  The clouds are shimmering with lightning & teasing me with rain.  It's nighttime.  Relishing the wind & the rain coming out of the sexy tropical heat of Valle de Cauca.  Getting back out on the road makes me smile.  The road is long & beautiful.

Fernando Palmira->Buga
Guillermo & Diego ->Tulua
Jorge ->Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa's small town feel lets me breathe deep like I've been at a suffocating altitude.  There's something relieving about being alone.  After spending so much time around people, there's alot of nudity happening.  Whenever I stay at a hotel I always plan to make them regret convincing me to stay.  I end up doing things like taking the mirrors off the walls, plugging up the sink with towels, staying up all night & cutting my hair.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay

Danger is perceptual.
The media paints strange abstract pictures of foreign lands, and everyone has places they fear in their own hometown.  There are statistics, & statistics sometimes fail.  No one really ever knows.  Thus risk.

Travelling through Colombia is like Running from the rain.  The heat in Cali is dreadfully perfect.  The Caleños don't pray for rain, they dance.  This is the Salsa Capital of the World.  In fact, they had to change the rules in the Salsa Olympics so Caleños would not win everytime.  Their speed in superhuman.  We are showered with sweat instead.  The only place we relish the cold showers.

I've been staying at this hostel for a week now.  Carlos, the owner, welcomes you at the door with free salsa & yoga classes.  The turnover rate here is very low.  Some people have been here 2-3 weeks, scheduling their return.  It's nice to have a home for now.  A safe corner for my things with friends & always something happening, even if it's nothing.  Sleeping in a bed is luxurious.

Last minute homework before arriving made me stiffen up.  Travel Advisories are to be taken with a slice of lemon chaser.  The US issued one December 2010 for Cali, not just because it's big scary Colombia, but because the kidnapping rate has grown incrementally.  The map given to me by my first hostel had a big white splotch in the middle with the subtext saying DO NOT WALK HERE.  We live on the edge of that area now & go there to eat, shop, buy groceries, go to concerts or watch ballet.

Cali is shrouded in mystery, or so it seems.  Considering the length of our stay, we hardly know anything about this city.  We hardly bring our cameras out, to avoid trouble.  It's a strange almost comforting feeling knowing there is no physical recollection of these days.  Lack of self-consciousness is refreshing.  Cheering on mimicry (or failure) at salsa lessons, even when the Cops are the ones watching.  At room tempurature it's hot yoga, but none of us are the ultraflex masters, so we shake & sweat & laugh later.  Tossing rings into the Sapo throne, which is a fabulous piece of carpentry.  Bringing our dancing shoes out at night, every night.

(There was a percussion festival, an International Ballet festival, & a cultural festival this week - of which I keep getting my wires crossed, but persevere.  Finally!  Live music!!!)

The Argentinians cooked magificant pizza for everyone Friday, & are brilliant musicians & dancers.  Natalie (Germany) lived here a year a while back, & since it's her last weekend, always knows the cool local places to be - she points & educates me.  Cullum (England) spent a month on a shamanic quest south-west from here & can point out things about me I've never told anyone - we look for the underground.  Doron (Israel) is a ballroom dancer with a slick sense of humour - I kick his ass at Sapo & he returns the favour on the dancefloor.  Mix with 15 other people all over the world.  My Hostel Life.

When we discuss danger, we are preaching to the choir.  It's sometimes more evident than other times.  Last night at the bar one of us heard a story from a woman whose brother had been killed the night before.  In explanation, she said "This is Cali.  These things happen."
...and there's sometimes dancing on the streets.

We are protected by the occasional helicopter armed with machine guns, and the lock on our front door.  We've heard the stories, & scars to show.  We are protected by each other & common sense.
Then we go our seperate ways.

Monday, June 6, 2011

'Mi casa es tu casa'

Salento & Valle de Cocora are two Must Sees of Colombia, according to every Colombian I've met & the Lonely Planet.  Salento's a neat little place.  A strange stillness about it, & a considerable amount of wandering foreigners attached to it.  Saturday midday is a parade.  The marching band & marching firefighters, all with their best we-don't-want-to-be-here faces, followed by a 6 block convoy of fire engines - horns blazing. 

Wandering around on an empty stomach, every restaurant has signs for Trucha.  Trucha with mushrooms, trucha with beans, trucha with rice, trucha with salsa.  Mmmm alright!  Trucha means trout.  Dammit.  I've been vegetarian for going on 6 years.  This gets increasingly difficult on the road, while the reasons & rules change constantly.

The Valle de Cocora is actually beautiful.  Painted in perfect colours.  The trees were forest green, the grass emerald.  The overcast sky touched the tops of the trees, the tallest palms in the world.  Went trekking with the couple who gave me a ride down & a family of 5 - all Colombians.

The family, which is a family of 3 & two friends of theirs, invite me to ride horses with them.  I had some practice on a horse one summer camp when I was young.  Since then I've been horseriding once in Mexico.  Time to master the equine once again!  I was awesome (humble) & way more prepared than before.  My ankles were muddy & my shoes wet from riding through rocky trails slick with mud & through rivers, just to the edge of the primary forest.

This family, my family, has adopted me.  Arriving back to Salento, they said they were going out on a day trip the next day & if I want to come, I can stay at their house tonight.  I am officially invited.

They told me I'm 'the boss of the house' for the night & left me with their two sons, Pablo (12) & Niko (14).
They live in Bogota, & staying for the weekend at their guest house in Armenia.  Very nice.  The sort a lawyer could afford.  The kids are amazing, playing Colombian Parcheezie & falling asleep watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire - in which the highest prize is 300,000,000 Colombian pesos (~150,000$).

I brought a bottle of water, they brought juiceboxes of Aguardiente.  Oh dear....
We spent the day drifting down Rio Viejo on a raft, captained by two dudes wielding bamboo sticks, or floating through rapids.  Rivers here are fairly clean but an opaque light brown.  The waterfall was clear, cold, fresh & beautiful.  A bowl of rock with an explosion of water.  The force creates it's own wind.  Mist, thunder.  Hide, concentrate.  Mud between your toes.  Smile.
So far on this trip 2 people have thought I was Colombian, & one thought I was Brazilian, & 2 Colombians laughed as I showed them around Manizales.  I have never been lost in translation.  Seeing English spoken tours is a reminder how lucky I am.

I was left at the bus station with a request from Oscar & Juan Pedro to call them anytime day or night if I ever need anything.  I have gained so much from knowing Spanish.  I know enough to laugh when I'm called a Gringa, an American, & that Mona (monkey) is more accurate.  We are all Monos.  : /

The Sleeping Lion of Manizales

"I'm sure there're more people like me who..."
"No.  There aren't."

My most brilliant plan is trying to hitchhike to a national park as well as to the top of a mountain, Nevado del Ruiz.  One of 3 snow capped mountains in the park, & the highest.

Slim pickins.  I made it to the turnoff from the highway in good time, around 10.  Tourgroups are ~70$ & would be at the entrance at around 8.  By slim pickins I mean zero cars.  I wander & start to plan my return.  Traffic would pick up on the weekend, it'd be easier to come back then.  But it's only 10:30.  "Even if it takes all day, you will get a ride."  Two women from the tienda next door tell me if I want to take a ride on a motorcycle, their friend will drive me up.


It's surprisingly easy & comfortable, but it won't last.  My bag is heavy & awkward, & it's freezing rain.  Landscape turns to tundra-like.  I keep telling the driver, Gabriel to be careful & carefully calculate what it would be like to wipe out.  My hands are cold & clutching my camera around his torso.  Chin down.  Smile.

At the Park Gate, they politely tell me I have to wait for a car.  Gabriel says he's headed around the perimeter of the park to the very other side, where he lives.  I consider it, cause I can never refuse anything offered to me.  Even though I wouldn't have to pay the 27$ park entry fee, a 4 hour ride in the rain on a motorcycle with my backpack sounds a bit too awful to withstand, despite the story potential.

I was trying to explain to one of the guides that not all the people who have their own cars, the ones I'm looking for, are going to be up & on the mountain at the break of dawn like the tour groups.  Surely some of them like to sleep in, like me.  Rafael & Diana arrive & happily take me to the top.

My intention of coming to Manizales was to climb to the summit.  It's been closed since last August because it's an active volcano on amber alert - the second least of 4 levels.  Trying to imagine in the 2 1/2 hour roundtrip to the top, the alert level raising to the point we'd be in danger.  Dammit.  In the meantine, the Colombians are throwing snowballs at each other.

"We do not fail."  Mission accomplished!

Sidenote: That night was my first night in a bed in 2 weeks & was wonderful. :)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Tonight I am listening with one ear to Game 1 of the NHL playoffs.  Even when away, you're never really away.  Geraldine is across from me listening to light french music, tired, writing lesson plans for tomorrow.

Days in the city are smelly, fast-paced & friendly.  The bakeries on every corner put me at ease, cause the smell of baked bread takes me home.  Even in the downtrodden areas.  The parks surrounding are fabulous.  Deer petting, ostrich/hummingbird observing, butterfly avoiding, forest hiking fabulousness.

I'm thinking about plans.  I could easily get messages from a few key people & it would all fall apart.  So it goes.  Plans are the worst.  Plans are the best!  My head is spinning, write with possibilities.  Yesterday I wrote down 4 cities hemispheres away from each other.  Too many things!  It can't all happen!  Can I make it happen?

These next couple months are sure to be interesting.