Entries from February 26th, 2011

eso es en Cartagena

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I’m home!  Well, back in Medellin, which will continue to be my home for the next few weeks.  On Wednesday (or was it Tuesday?)  I took an overnight bus (translation: 13 hours) to Cartagena, a town on the Caribbean coast of Northern Colombia.  I had heard of it as a must-see destination since arriving in Medellin.  Mary Jo has been twice, and so if I wanted to go, I knew I was doing it solo.

(The picture below was taken from Mary Jo’s balcony, straight from the camera.  I will never tire of this view.)

The smart thing to do before settling back in your single digit degree of recline-able chair is to pop a sleeping aid, be it prescribed or over the counter (read:  whiskey), make sure your blanket is covering your feet, and let the driver gently shake you awake the next morning once you’ve arrived at your destination.  The smart thing is not to innocently climb aboard the bus, bottle of water gripped in hand, book in the other, and think that you’re going to get some solid reading time in before dozing pleasantly to sleep to the always calming, choice sounds of Sade whispering to you through your earbuds.  The ride from Cartagena to Medellin takes 12-13 hours by bus, or one hour by plane.  The difference in a one-way ticket is around $50, but when you are traveling on an extremely tight budget, and when time is on your side, the answer to which route you should take is pretty clear.  The reason the time difference is so great is because by plane, you are basically coasting at a descent towards the sea from the mountains, a straight shot from Medellin to Cartagena.  By bus, the route winds around mountains on a mostly two lane road, shared with trucks transporting livestock, very likely.  Have you ever taken a bus from Chinatown in New York to Boston, or Washington D.C.?  Lucky Star?  The experience is pretty similar to that, meaning you just sort of have to realize that by choosing to take the cheaper route, nothing is guaranteed, and that it is, indeed, in your best interest to just squeeze your eyes shut and imagine you are on a super exciting and impressively realistic simulated ride, a themed roller coaster thumping Reggaeton as the driver swerves into oncoming traffic in order to check if it’s safe to pass the vehicle in front of him, that he has surely obtained a legitimate license earlier than yesterday, and trust that all will be rosy in the morning.

And it is!  And you feel like you’ve accomplished something once you’ve arrived, even though you did nothing but doze in and out of sleep and drool and accidentally elbow your neighbor in the head (in my defense, she was completely covered by a blanket, and if not for her impressive flexibility, her head would have been resting on my shoulder instead of near my ribs).  The real accomplishment is surviving a taxi ride from the bus station to the middle of Cartagena.  Sweet moses.  In my entire 27 years of existence prior to last Wednesday, I was convinced that the worst drivers were located in the southern part of the United States, where a large amount of retirees tend to migrate to, where tourists saturate and rent cars and cover steering wheels with gigantic maps looking for a yellow brick road, and where far too many kids are given luxury cars with no threat of consequence should they choose to engage in risky behavior before they are even old enough to legally vote.  This place I speak of is Florida.  Sure, European drivers might have a reputation for being a bit crazy, but Cartagena takes the cake for the worst.  drivers.  ever.  And they are scam artists, those cabbies!  There are no meters in their cars, so it’s a good thing I had people tell me how much I should pay, or I would have exceeded my budget for the day before I even stepped out on the streets of my destination.

I arrive at my hostel.  There is no room.  I am kindly told that there might be an opening in a few minutes, if I’d like to wait.  So I do, for about 10 minutes.  I wonder if a few minutes might mean a few hours, but I don’t know how to politely express my curiosities in Spanish.  So I wait longer.  I finally call Mary Jo’s friend, Sam, who also happens to be in Cartagena for the week.  Mercifully, he answers, and there are open rooms at his hotel for around $25 a night.  My backpack is heavy, Cartagena is hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch, I’m hungry and thirsty and I don’t know my way around, and so I give up trying to find another hostel and I take a cab straight to Sam’s hotel.  I was sort of disappointed that I wouldn’t be staying in a hostel, since I never had before, but also secretly excited that I’d have my own bathroom (for $25!) after all.

Cartagena! How can I describe this….I never knew this city existed until a few months ago.  It is divided into the old city and the new.  The architecture is Spanish colonial style, in colors of turquoise and tangerine and celestial blue and lime and bright white.  The streets are too narrow for more than one lane of traffic.  Huge oak doors studded with two inch diameter nails (the bigger the nails, the wealthier the home owners in those days) hide stunningly gorgeous spaces with pools, open terraces, marble lobbies of boutique hotels.  I love to look into windows as I pass by houses and apartments, to get a quick glimpse into the lives of others.  I know it’s nosy.  Cartagena is a haven for idiosyncrasies of this nature.

We sat on the beach, drank hot sugared coffee from plastic shot glasses (it’s a thing there), sampled tamarind sugar balls and coconut wafers from a woman who balanced a bowl full of sweets on her head, tried every kind of Colombian beer that exists (which is only 5 or 6), met some really cool people from Chicago, Sao Paulo, Pereira, Austin, Venezuela, and Ireland, and I did get to stay in a hostel after all (found one while walking to dinner the first night).  The first night, I was ill-prepared for bed and subsequently as I walked into my shared room, 7 heads turned in my direction when I turned on the light to find my bed, and, not wanting to upset anyone further by rummaging around in my bag for a toothbrush, a t-shirt, or earplugs, decided to keep my standards high and to just sleep in my clothes.

More to come…

personas, lugares, cosas

Monday, February 21, 2011

a few quick notes from Saturday – we did lots of touristic things, firsts for me, firsts for Mary.

Biblioteca España is a cluster of black geometric blocks built against a canvas of clay colored hills and houses at the top of one of the most historically violent barrios in Medellin, Santo Domingo Savo.  Giancarlo Mazzanti, a Colombian architect, designed this library as part of an effort to improve the sense of community and pride among the impoverished people of Medellin.  For so long, Medellin was riddled with corruption and ruled by drug cartels, but all it takes is one visit to see that the people who live here are anxious to show you the rich depth of their city beyond that which has received such waves of negative attention.  The library itself is not very extensive, but it is what it represents that carries the most meaning.  Free to the public, it includes a children’s section with rows of books and a computer room, too, offering a sort of haven of escape to the local people of the neighborhood, and tourists and others a chance to see a different, less traveled part of the city.

Colorful clothing hangs across lines and lays atop roofs, women lean out windows and call to kids who chase each other through the streets, boys offer to tell the history of their neighborhood for a few pesos, stray dogs nap in the shade.  We saw much of this from above while riding a gondola that took us straight up the side of the mountain and dropped us near the biblioteca.

Walking back to the metro cable, we met a woman who was hand-stretching taffy around a tree branch and selling lollipop portions of it around popsicle sticks.  Wow.  As I type this, I’m craving a cherry popsicle, and I know for a fact that I’ve never craved a cherry popsicle before, never even had a passing thought of a popsicle, in any flavor, before.  Anyway.  This woman was a total gem, very proud of her creation, and rightly so.  Every morning, she starts with some kind of dark caramel colored substance and twists and turns it until it morphs into the consistency of homemade taffy.  If you’ve ever taken a store-bought jet-puffed marshmallow and pulled it between your thumbs and index fingers until it got gooey, soft, and super sticky, you’ll know what I mean.  I used to love this doing this as a kid, and she completely reminded me of when I did.

Next, we took the metro to Jardin Botanica, or the Botanical Gardens of Medellin.  We ate whole fried fish with lime and creamy asparagus soup for lunch.  Entry here, too, is free, and it is worth the trip for a chance at some rest in the grass with a book if, say, you’re into pretty perfect weather and a natural backdrop of some of the brightest and most exotic plants and flowers in the world.  Sounds terrible, I know.  And the butterflies!  The butterflies were as enchanting as the Spanish word for them:  Mariposa.  By the way, there is something about a six year old speaking a different language, particularly one as romantic as Spanish, French, or Italian that makes him or her seem frighteningly more cultured, aware, and intelligent than me.  By miles.

If you ever get a chance to visit Medellin, you’ve got to check out Botero Plaza.  We took the train to the Parque Berrio metro stop and walked a few blocks until we found a black and tan checkered church, a popular landmark that I don’t know the name of, but one that you look for when trying to locate the Plaza.

Fernando Botero is a Colombian artist famous for his full-figured paintings and sculptures.  Though we didn’t actually go into the Botero museum, we did sit outside near the plaza which is peppered with his sculptures and watched people passing by for hours.  I’m sure the museum is truly fantastic, but the people watching just outside of it was another art form to witness entirely.  I will remember it for the rest of my life.  It was a full and gorgeous day of living, and we’ve got the tomato-hued shoulders to prove it.

baile

Friday, February 18, 2011

Have I mentioned that Mary Jo likes to dance?  I’m sorry……loves.  She loves and adores it, much like I love and adore, say, tacos.  That level of loyalty.  She’s already taken a series of salsa lessons here in Medellin.  I knew it would only be a day or two before she’d drag me to the dance floor with her, and it is such an fundamental part of the culture here, so I knew I had to try it.  It isn’t that I don’t like to dance, but my preferred style has nothing to do with timing, or steps, or a partner, for that matter.  I love the power of music and what it can do for people.  And I think dancing is a natural and necessary form of human expression.  My dad is an excellent dancer, so maybe a part of my appreciation for it comes from him.

 

 

We spent last night in El Centro, a super authentic and arty part of Medellin.  Sam took us to a block crowded with locals and Colombian street food.  Mary Jo and I shared patacones:  a plantain flattened to the size of a huge pancake and fried crisp, topped with a salsa of shredded chicken, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce.  Hot damn, it was my kind of eating.

We hopped around to a few different bars before our final stop at a place with live salsa music.  I didn’t think I would dance, but once I started, I couldn’t get enough.  There was a moment when I settled into the music and let myself be led by Gabriel (he’s the guy above in the middle), when I let go of any sort of control and when I could feel a part of me melting away, a stiffness that I’ve been carrying around for a really, really long time.  Maybe it was music, the energy of the room, the fact that I am elated to be in an entirely new setting with one of my greatest friends, and I’m quite certain it had something to do with the amount of aguardient we consumed earlier in the evening.  I was afraid.  But I did it anyway.  And I’m proud of that.

 

el metro y un museo

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Every day, I venture further and further from home base.  The first day, I went to the closest market.  Yesterday, I had lunch with two of Mary Jo’s coworkers, and then she and I walked all around her neighborhood to find a place where I could buy a cheap cell phone before eating a delicious meal of sushi with some new friends.  TODAY!  Today, my friends, I walked so far I got a nice set of blisters on the heels of my feet.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t wear sensible shoes.  No, I most definitely earned these blisters.  Medellin is a huge, vibrant city.  True, there is a good amount of traffic, and the cars don’t like to stop for pedestrians, but there are also a ton of people walking, jogging, and biking at any time of the day.  The weather is beautiful.  Warm and breezy and not too humid.  Each morning has started with a haze, but by early afternoon, the sun peaks through.

Today, I visited Medellin’s Museum of Modern Art.  I had three options to get there:  walk, metro, or taxi.  I chose the metro.  It’s entirely above ground, efficient, and way more clean than any train I’ve become accustomed to.  Also, a round trip ticket is about $1.50.  Not bad, eh?

I must have asked for directions eight or nine times today.  I was so lost, but I didn’t care.  It gave me an excuse to talk with people, to practice hearing and speaking Spanish.  Each person I asked went out of his or her way to help me.  A women walked me to the closest store to ask someone else because she didn’t know.  Another man walked me to the actual building.  The doors were barred, and I found out that the location had moved to the other side of the city.  So I walked back to the metro and took it to the right stop.  Once I got off, I asked a woman to point me in the right direction.  She was walking the same way, so we walked together.  Can you imagine how much I appreciated that?  I’m falling in love with the gracious hospitality of the people here.

Super cool graffiti as far as the eyes can see….

El Museo de Arte Moderno was one floor with two rectangular rooms on both sides of a lobby.

Paintings by Colombian artist Débora Arango below.



 

On both sides of the halls of the museum were rows of simple vignettes like the two below.  A piece of art and a chair to take it in.

 

 

The walk back to Mary’s place is uphill, and quite far from the closest metro station, so I took a cab back.  I was sweaty, and the driver must have noticed because he pulled over and bought two ice creams on the way, one for him and one for me.  He also pulled out a children’s book in English and Spanish from his glove compartment and explained that, for him, it was the easiest and most fun way to learn another language.  I totally and completely agree.

el primer dia y cinco micheladas

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

First, I’ve got to say that I probably wouldn’t be in Medellin if it weren’t for Mary Jo.  I am lucky to have her for a friend, and lucky that she loves visitors.  I’m happy to be here.  Happy to be able to fulfill a dream of traveling, and happy to have a familiar face around on the first leg of this adventure.

Yesterday was Valentines Day, and while most of you were celebrating with your sweethearts or friends, I was falling in love all over again with my sandals, as I seem to do every spring.  I spent a good chunk of the day researching and reading.  I bought some groceries.  I dodged some traffic.  I drank micheladas.  The trip to the market was pretty hilarious.  It also proved that no matter where I am, a visit to any place that sells food is both a calming and invigorating experience for me.  The closest store is literally a five minute walk from MJ’s apartment, but the roads curve unpredictably, and since I’m unfamiliar with the area, I had to stop to ask for directions.  My last similar experience in a latin country occurred in Buenos Aires, when I boldly ventured out for a bottle of wine alone and didn’t return until two hours later (and yes, I eventually did find wine….at a pizzeria, where I begged the guys to sell me two bottles).  I can ask the question just fine, but I often inadvertently tune out the answer (although this also happens in English).  But!  This time was a success.  The market was right around the corner, in case you were wondering.  That helped, too.

I love the packaging and advertising that you find in a lot of other countries.  It’s so cheery and enticing.  I walked out with an avocado, a lime, a bag of frozen corn (what?  I don’t think I’ve ever bought frozen corn in my life), a pack of string cheese, some rice, 2 nectarines, and a six pack of beer.  Not that beer ever has to do something special to sell me, but yesterday, Tecate won with this sticker:  Pague 5, lleve 6 (pay for 5, take 6).  Why thank you, and I did.  One of the guys walked my bags to the door for me, which was confusing, and I later found out that it is customary to tip for this sort of service.  Of course!  I totally missed that.  Just an example of how much there is to learn, but also what an opportunity this is for growth.  I’m looking forward to it.

After Mary Jo was finished with work, we drank micheladas on her balcony and waited for her friend Sam to meet us.  Then we walked to a place and had more micheladas and shots of Aguardiente, a popular anise liqueur of Colombia.  For dinner, the 3 of us we ate at a small, charming spot called Milagros and shared a platter of tortillas and ground beef served with an array of salsas and sauces.  I never knew mole sauce could be so bewitching.  In fact, I never liked it much until last night.  It was slightly sweet, but more tangy, with the thinner consistency than any mole I’ve seen, and I would have been perfectly content to eat it as a soup.  Mole soup!  Now there’s an idea.  I wonder if this has been done before….

 

Mary Jo’s apartment is nestled in the hills, giving her a view of the city which is gorgeous during the day and breathtaking at night.

 

 

Sam, you look mighty fine with that bag slung over your shoulder…

 

 

Ciao MJ!

 

Now.  For you, if you want to enjoy a michelada, the Colombian way:

Rim a pint glass with lime and dip into flaky sea salt.  Squeeze a lime into the bottom of the glass.  Top with a cold beer.  Imbibe!