Entries Tagged as 'Colombia'

Te echaré de menos, Colombia

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I’m back from Providencia with a few more tan lines, a lot more mosquito bites, and runaway granules of sand hiding in pocket crevices, the biggest giveaway that we’d spent the better part of the last week at the beach.  We were in San Andres, an island off the coast of Nicaragua (but still part of Colombia) when we found out about the tsunami in Japan.  We’d let the sun bake us to a deeper color before we took a small boat to a neighboring island to swim with sting rays.  On the ride back to San Andres, the rain came and rinsed us clean.  The captain passed each of the passengers a plastic cup of rum to ease our chattering teeth.  As we sat down to dinner, video of the catastrophe played on a big screen.  It didn’t seem real.  How could it be?  The image of the water gushing past the coastline, obliterating everything in its path, replayed again and again.  We ate without enthusiasm, and we left, and it was the last of any coverage we saw for the next five days.  There was no easy access to internet or t.v. in Providencia to give us further idea of just how horrible the situation was.  And so I didn’t really think about it.  It just didn’t seem real.

Now that I’m back and am catching up on the latest threats as a result of this sad occurrence, it makes this whole trip seem less important and more personally important at the same time.  Less important for obvious reasons.  More important because again, in an instant, I am snapped back to the reality of how fragile one day of life really is.

So what can I tell you about Providencia that can accurately convey its effects?  I could tell you about the sea, and how it stretches for miles in gradations of blue and green:  at the brightest part of the day, from cyan to cobalt to the color of freshly spilled ink.  To gold and periwinkle as the sun sneaks closer to eye level and finally slips snugly below the horizon.  If you’ve been to the Caribbean, you know what I’m saying.  I hadn’t before this.  I had no idea that water came in so many colors.

I could tell you about the catamaran we took for a three hour trip from San Andres to Providencia.  The boat  that rocked us from our seats as it bounced over the waves, splashing water aboard and caking our skin with a good layer of salt.  Schools of flying fish  that seemed to want to race the boat, and tried to, before disappearing swiftly back below the surface.

And the man and the car he drove to deliver us from the arrival dock to our Posada, a trip we shared with a wonderfully fun couple from Warsaw, whom we bonded with first over our shared awe of the exceptional interior decor of the cab itself.  Pinned to the entire inside perimeter of his car was a wide strand of lavender fringe, like what you might find hanging from the bottom of an antique lamp shade inside the office of a gypsy fortune teller.  A taxi cab with class, if I’ve ever seen one.  And later, over a card game, coconut pie from a favorite local restaurant, and reggae.

I should mention the horses that roam freely about the beach, and the men that train them and bathe them just after sunrise.  The beaches were nearly bare, save for a horse or two.  It felt magical.

The crabs that scuttle across the roads and hide out in the corners of bathrooms.  The prized peacock that struts across the lawn near the Sirius dive shop of Southwest Bay, where we spent most of our time.  The roosters that lift a person from deep sleep each morning, like clockwork.  The fishing boats that dot the water near the shore and the owners who, without a thought, offer rides to the neighboring beaches, or to Cayo Congrejo for snorkeling, swimming, and a 360 degree view of that mesmerizing sea.

About the mixed seafood platters of white fish caught the same day, lightly fried and served whole, the sweetly tender black crab meat, delicately shredded and tossed with garlic, black pepper and red spices, all served next to flattened green plantains, fluffy, grainy coconut rice and halves of fruit that resemble orange in color but lime in taste.  Or the sweets of Cafe Studio, namely: the pies.  Coconut covered by a meringue blanket.  Lemon.  Chocolate that resembled more of a bread.  Cappuccino pudding.  The sweet mangoes native to the island which, once ripe, fall from the trees with a light swat of a stick.  The local beer of choice that is, I kid you not, Milwaukee’s Best.  I resisted it until 12 hours before our departure, and then I drank three in a row.

Providencia is the kind of island that will throw an unforeseen fork in a person’s road map.  The kind of place people visit, fall in love with, and decide to relocate to because they can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.  We met two such people on our short trip.  I’ve got a feeling that it had a bit to do with the picturesque setting and a lot to do with the people who inhabit it.

What I want to remember most keenly from the five days in Providencia, and really from my whole trip to Colombia, are the people I met and the ways in which they lived, some so different from how I live, yet, when stripped down to the basics, are in fact very much the same.  There’s a resiliency, a connection of the human spirit, one we’ve used to survive since the beginning, that seems to be most recognized whenever disaster strikes.  Imagine if that human connection was felt a little more strongly, a little more often, all around the world.

Colombia, I’ll miss you.  Your kindness, your culture, your salsa, your passion, your people.  I’ll miss it all.

la continuación en una serie de fotos

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We arrived at the Medellin bus terminal on Saturday, home from Rio Claro, and right away took another bus to Santa Fe, Antioquia, a pueblo an hour (mas o menos) West of Medellin to meet some friends.  We added two to the group of seven, our ages ranging from 26 to 79.  We ate fried food on sticks in the middle of the main plaza.  With dropped jaws, we watched a group of gorgeously chiseled men and women twist, turn, and shake their bodies at mind-bending angles to traditional, coastal beats at a tempo I didn’t think was humanly possible.  We shared a carton of rum.  And we spent the better part of Sunday lounged around the hotel pool.  Sunday had all the makings of a Puff Daddy (P Diddy?)  music video.  Except for the hotel’s music of choice, which ranged from Barry White to Rod Stewart, and besides our games of choice, which ranged from sudoku to ping-pong…..


For a day, we felt like divas.  Divas who read the local pueblo paper with a vigor usually reserved for things like zip lining, or salsa dancing, or, for some I suppose, standing as extras in cheesy hip hop videos….

If you make it to Colombia and you’ve got time to visit Santa Fe Antioquia, do it.  And I think I can speak for all of us when I say it is recommended to stay in Hotel Mariscal Robledo (per person, breakfast and lunch included, we paid around $55/night.  Did I mention beers were $2?).

I smell coffee.  Time for an afternoon pick-me-up.  Have a really, really wonderful weekend, all.

un fin de semana para recordar, parte uno

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Would you believe me if I told you that here, a whole pineapple costs about $0.50?  And that’s at the expensive market.  A can of imported, gelatinous, condensed, but nonetheless somewhat of a personal creature-comfort soup is more than $4.  It’s true.

The topic of this post is not Foods of Colombia.  I’d expect a well-deserved backlash if it was, since one of the two foods I’ve mentioned is tomato soup.  The food post is coming.  More research is required.  The perfect arepa has yet to be discovered.  I’m still shopping around for unforgettable fruit juices and flaky pastries that could bring a person to tears.  No, this post is about last weekend.  I’ve been working on it since  this morning yesterday morning.  First at a French cafe that played electronic tango and served cafe con leche, then later at home over a mustard, mozzarella, lettuce, and yuca chip sandwich.

Wow.  The tomato soup was one thing, but that last admission?  Raises some serious questions as to my qualifications on food writing, doesn’t it.

Last Friday, we packed our mosquito spray, sunscreen, a deck of cards, and swim suits, and we headed for Rio Claro.

We rented a cabana room with one wall completely open to the jungle.  We danced with swaying palm leaves.  We beat-boxed to the sound of a thousand cicadas.  A gecko skipped across my feet (once while I was awake, and once while I was in bed wondering what sort of creatures we were disturbing at that very moment).  We forgot a flashlight, but luckily Mary brought her blackberry so didn’t have to crawl home in the dark from the lobby to the cabana.  The fresh air knocked us into a deep sleep by 9 pm, and a steady rainfall kept me dreaming.

We fell asleep near the celadon-colored river for which the property is named.


During the night, the rain was busy turning that gem-colored river to a murky tint of tan.  To be serious for a second, the photo below is a visual representation of a very real and common problem in Colombia,  the unfortunate erosive effects of the typical climate on the mountainous terrain.  Well-suited to grow a wide variety of crops (coffee, sugarcane, bananas, wheat, potatoes), but ill-suited to withstand the high amount of yearly rainfall that keeps much of Colombia in a constant shade of green.



The next morning, we drank coffee and ate eggs on green wooden chairs in the middle of the jungle.



We zip-lined in the middle of the jungle.


Do I look dauntless?  Tranquil, even?  I wasn’t.  I was terrified.  My legs were trembling.  Heart was thumping.  I thought I was going to throw up all over our perfectly sweet, highly amused, teen-aged guides in orange, also above.  The same guides who, after dealing with us for forty-five minutes, must have felt inclined to do something a bit more daring.  Here they are floating joyfully down Rio Claro, seconds after they’d soared through a set of decently rough rapids with nothing but life jackets to shield themselves from jagged river rock.  Show offs.



Can you the blue blurb in the photo below?  That’s a butterfly.


Here’s another.


After lunch on Saturday, we walked to the front of the property to wait for a bus because that’s the way to get back to Medellin if you don’t have a car or a motorcycle.  We probably could have hitchhiked, which we considered for a solid seven minutes (just kidding, family).  We stood by the side of the road and waited for a bus, any bus, to rumble around the corner.  One was scheduled to pass by at 1:30, mas o menos.  Everything is mas o menos in Colombia.  It means more or less, approximately, give or take a few.  It allows for a nice pocket of pliability and usually enough time to locate a couple of beers for the journey, however long or short.


The bus stopped and the co-captain leaned out the door to wave us in as we trotted with our backpacks across the road.  He greeted us with a toothy smile, called us reinas  (or queens, in Spanish), gave our beers an approving nod, and we were off before we had a chance to identify open seats.  Which brings me to the topic of seat neighbors.  Sometimes you hope to sit next to someone interesting who will change your life with illuminating, forthright conversation.  The kind that makes you see, so crystal-clearly, that yes of course he wasn’t the one for you, that someone more suitable will surely come along, and yes, within the next three decades, that timing is everything and although you’ve heard it seventeen thousand times before, for some reason unknown to you, this is the time it actually sticks.  That the choices you’ve made in life are up to this point have made you who you are, don’t you see?  Fear is an acronym for False Experiences Appearing Real.  Or, my personal favorite, and a much less philosophical definition:  Fuck Everything And Run.

Sometimes you hope to sit next to someone who will barely acknowledge your existence.

And sometimes, you hope to sit next to someone like Ranello.

Ranello could rock a unibrow like no one else.  It rose and fell in an amusing cadence as he spoke and joked with us in broken English.  He pulled out a trophy and proudly told us that he’d won it in a competition involving improvisational singing and joking with audience participation.  He said he knew a version of English, called Bullshit, before he let out a big belly laugh that reverberated through the bus and quickly infected both Mary and me.  Pretty soon we were all laughing together.  It is my belief that if you can effectively tell a joke in a language that’s not your own, you have achieved an enviable level of social success.


Parte dos, to come.

hour of beer

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It’s 2:00 p.m., and I just made myself a michelada.

I also have some news.  In January, I applied for a course that would certify me to teach English to adults, called the CERTA.  My intention was to take the course while in Buenos Aires since the timing worked out perfectly, to prepare myself to move somewhere for six months to a year to teach English and earn money while traveling.  The interview was this week, and everything went well.  I thought about it for the past two days, and something didn’t seem right.   Did I really want to spend the majority of my time in Buenos Aires in a classroom?  I came to South America to learn Spanish and to experience the culture, the people, taste the food, to spend time with friends and to open my mind and heart to a wider world, and to, ideally, write about it. Taking the course would leave little time for much else beyond lesson planning and classroom work.  So yesterday, I decided that I’m going to take Spanish classes instead.  Intensive, morning classes that will leave the afternoons free.  Free for wandering, eating empanadas (and I will, everyday), meeting locals, and practicing Spanish.  It sounds ridiculous and hard to believe that this will be my life for the next few months, but I want to take full advantage of it while I have the opportunity.

Tonight, we’re going salsa dancing.  Tomorrow, we’re going to the jungle.  I hope you have a great weekend, wherever you are.  See you next week.

una vista diferente

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I’m backtracking a bit here, but I wanted to write about Cartagena while it was still fresh in my mind.  I also wanted some time to reflect upon what I experienced last Thursday.

By the way, I’m experimenting with larger photos.  Do you like them?  Or do you prefer the smaller versions in the previous posts?  I want you to know that I am here for you.

For those of you that know her, this will be old news, but for those of you who don’t, I want to tell you a bit about Mary Jo’s work for the Grameen Foundation.  Usually she is based in Washington D.C., but last year she was promoted to a position that requires her to travel and set up shop abroad, working for several months at a time within the Social Performance Department of Grameen.  The Social Performance Department specifically works with a Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI), a tool that Grameen developed to measure the poverty levels of the people who take out the loans and their progress over time.  Before Medellin, she worked for eight months in Manila.  I visited her in December of 2010, and she was able to take some time off so we could travel around the Philippines together.  Last week she received some extremely exciting news:  she’s been promoted to PPI Product Manager.  In June, she’ll move from D.C. to Seattle.  Yes, it’s true.  My friend kicks major ass.  Cheers to you, MJ.

I am certainly not qualified to wholly describe what Grameen does, but now that I’ve started, I’m going to attempt to describe the rest of what I do know.  (I apologize for just how simplified this is).

GF’s mission is to help people around the world to escape poverty through their own entrepreneurial means by assisting them with loans that they would never be able to borrow from a commercial bank.  For example, one woman might apply for a $1,500 loan so that she can buy fabric, machines, and other materials necessary to start her own sewing business.

One of MJ’s goals in Medellin was to hire a new PPI Specialist for the Latin American/Caribbean region.  She did.  His name is Sergio.  As part of his training, Sergio has had to visit both urban and rural settings with loan officers to get an idea of the actual process of lending/borrowing.  Last Thursday, he was to visit Rionegro and Marinilla just outside of Medellin with an officer from Interactuar, a separate microfinance corporation also devoted to helping people achieve their dreams and to escape poverty.  Interactuar offers specific professional development classes, such as in bartending or culinary or pastry.  They offer English classes for people wishing to work in tourism, and they also provide accountability training, which focuses on teaching people to separate their personal finances from their business finances.  I had the fortunate opportunity to tag along with Sergio and Monica, a loan officer from Interactuar.

Marta and Beatrice, two other women who work for Interactuar, picked us up in Medellin and we drove thirty minutes or so to Rionegro.  Rionegro has a definite small town feel.  I kept comparing it to New Ulm, where my mom’s family is from, of where I would spend a good amount of each summer when I was younger.  There are, of course, innumerable differences between a town in Colombia located high in the Andes, rich with over 400 years of history, and a German town in Southern Minnesota known well for its local brewery and the third largest copper statue in the United States.  But small towns can be similar to each other, I think because they can be some of the most interesting places on the planet if you’re willing to look close enough.  Now.  Since I’ve written this, I’ve looked up demographics of both places to find that as of 2005, Rionegro had a population of 101,046.  New Ulm?  13,594 as of 2000.  So perhaps Rionegro isn’t so small after all.  But if felt like it to me, in the best way possible.  Even the church at the main point of the plaza in Rionegro reminded me of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm.  It could have been the incense…

We rode with Monica for the entire day, visiting several approved borrowers in and around Rionegro.  Monica had the kind of warm yet gently authoritative demeanor that made her seem meant for the work she was doing.  We first met a borrower named Eugenio. We drove from Rionegro to Marinilla.  We passed acres of farmland – cilantro, broccoli, lettuce – like in the photo above.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  Eugenio recently moved from Medellin to Marinilla, where much of his family also lives, after his wife left him for another man.  Eugenio’s friend owns the property where he stays, and Eugenio maintains the farm in exchange for free stay.  He figured it would be a good place to start over.  Eugenio told us that his dreams of spending his last days on a farm appeared to be coming true.  He looked to have years and years of life ahead of him, but maybe there was something I didn’t know, or maybe such a reinvention of one’s life is cause for thoughts like these.

As we arrived at the foot of the dirt path leading to the house, Eugenio jumped out and rolled opened the fence made of barbed wire and stick, much like the fence in the photo above.  As we drove up to the house, we passed a strange looking tree.  I looked closer:  avocado.   They lined the driveway, dozens and dozens of avocados begging to be plucked from their branches.

The house came into view, a splash of mustard yellow with deep green shutters against a backdrop of more  mountains.  Two dogs greeted us.  Cows moo’ed.  Horses whipped flies away with their tails.  Pink and red potted geraniums hung from the roof, surrounding the patio that wrapped around the house.  Eugenio walked us to his chicken coop.  This would be his business:  raising and selling chickens.  He spoke about the loan amount he was hoping for, and Monica explained that he would be approved for a portion of that amount initially.  If things went well, and he proved to be a successful borrower, he could apply for additional loans.  Eugenio seemed happy with her response.  He signed some papers, and we left to meet Monica’s second client.

Gloria was twenty-two, a wife, and a mother.  She wanted to expand her clothing business, to be able to buy the materials needed to make and sell her product in her brother’s shop across town.  Just before we left, she hurried into the kitchen and came back with three glasses of coke on a tray.  It was astounding to consider her maturity at such a young age.  Not only was she raising a child, but she was also managing her own small business and taking out loans to do so.  And she was a participating member of a working marriage.  I left a pair of pants at a restaurant last week in Cartagena, and I hadn’t even been drinking.

After we left Gloria, we visited another house of a married couple, their daughter, and the mother of either the husband or wife.  Grandma was in one room sitting up in bed.  The mother was in the kitchen, directly across from the sitting area where we gathered, producing something that smelled indescribably good, peeling guayaba, or guava, chatting and laughing along with her husband as he explained their immediate and long term goals for their project (part of the loan they were applying for would cover costs to start up a mop factory).  She quartered a guayaba and offered it to us.  She asked her daughter to bring in some herbs from outside and then added them to a blender with the peeled fruit, whirred it until smooth, and poured it into a big pot over the flame.  I wondered what kind of alluring and authentic dish called for blended, cooked guava.  I understood practically nothing of what was said, but the unity of this family was palatable.

Sergio and I sat down at the end of the day, and he answered my questions about each client.  It was interesting to learn where my inferences were correct and where they were completely off.  As we drove home, I cried.  It isn’t everyday that I have the privilege to see what I saw that day.  I was touched by the determination of the people we met.  By their grace, and by the pride they each had in their abilities to be financially independent.  My feelings about the whole experience were, and still are, complex.  I feel ashamed, embarrassed for feeling fortunate, humbled, ignorant, discouraged, yet inspired.  Affected.  And very, very, human.

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