Saturday, November 16, 2013

One Year in South America


A year ago yesterday I arrived in South America—scared, pale, and clueless. And now, as a seasoned South American traveler—with worn-out boots, steady tan, and halting Spanish—I have less than one week left on this continent. It’s been quite the journey. I’ll take this morning to reflect, as I swig some coffee in a hostel in Bucaramanga and wait for my money transfer from Ecuador to come through (kinda stuck here until then).
Thinking back, I don’t know how I got along with only a week or two of Spanish classes under my belt and no sense of direction. When I meet foreigners now who don’t speak Spanish I feel like I have to lead them around by the arm and constantly explain things to them:
Yes, traffic in South America is simply like this—you have to learn to dodge it is all. Get used to it. Yes, yes, the fruit is very exciting! Everything is so cheap! The tap water isn’t always drinkable, but don’t be so paranoid about it. You will get parasites or some form of weird stomach problems regardless. And when you have the runs, for the love of Pete don’t flush that toilet paper. Kiss people, greet everyone, play with the kids. Just try to speak Spanish, even if it sucks and their English is good.
I feel like I’m totally adjusted to life here. Of course there are a few differences between Colombia and Ecuador and Peru, but not so many. I’ve gotten to the point where picking up local slang or just understanding different accents isn’t terribly difficult. I can adjust. I can almost always understand what people are saying and I can communicate what I need to—I make lots of mistakes and probably word things awkwardly, but I can get my point across, usually. Most importantly, I’ve lost that sort of uncomfortable feeling that I had for my first 1-6 months—that lack of confidence and hesitancy to speak—and I’m completely comfortable chatting with people, if that’s what I feel like doing.
More than that, I’ve adjusted to the pace of life here, the way of life. I walk slower now; I barter with people about most things; I eat a big lunch and skip dinner; I consider anything under 10 degrees C (50 degrees F?) to be freezing cold; I think people who don’t greet me (with a kiss) are seriously rude; I like reggaeton and salsa (can’t dance it though) and I’ve started putting picante or aji (hot sauce) on everything. I’m always unaware of the time, although I haven’t lost my Western sense of punctuality completely—I’m still usually only 10 minutes late.  
Going back to comparisons between Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, I’d say that Colombia seems like it’d be the nicest place to live in a city (still stuck on Medellin), but in small towns I think it’s a three-way tie. The people are more welcoming of foreigners and tourists in Colombia because for a long time no one came here (crime, war, drugs), whereas that’s only the case in small towns in Ecuador and Peru. In fact, I think Peru is the most touristy and has the most aggressive salespeople. Ecuador has the Galapagos and Peru has Machu Picchu and I guess they get a little jaded about all of the loud gringos. Although Colombia has a lot as well, with the Caribbean coast and the Ciudad Perdida (lost city) ruins, so I don’t know. I think it’s mostly an urban versus rural thing to be honest. People in the countryside are just more trusting and more giving in general. But so many people are eager to share their culture and learn about mine, even when they’ve seen how horribly a lot of Americans and Europeans behave here, how our governments and people have contributed to the drug problems, which bring so much violence and poverty.
Anyway, they are all beautiful countries with so much to see and do, but Ecuador has a permanent piece of my medium-sized, American heart (I stole that from a song by the National). I got excited when there were Ecuadorians in Bogota because I understood them and felt some weird connection. Peru and Colombia will never mean so much to me. I’ve had to struggle a lot with certain things about Ecuador—the crime in Quito, shady business deals, a certain inauthenticity and sometimes apathy that I found in people, and such ardent nationalism. But I’ve learned to love so many things as well and I’ve been reassured by the kindness of strangers everywhere. Ecuadorians giving me a free ride when the bus was full, inviting me into their homes without knowing anything about me. Cab drivers who were so concerned for my safety that they insisted on backing up down a one-way street just to be sure to deliver me directly to my doorstep. A Peruvian taxi driver who, upon realizing I’d left my backpack in his cab—with my passport, wallet, debit card, etc.—found my phone and called my friends to arrange a time and place to come and drop it off (nearly an hour away). A Colombian woman who, when I asked for help finding a certain address, spent over half an hour walking around with me and ended up calling my couchsurfing friend to find the correct apartment.
And now, to be leaving this continent for what may be a very long time, if not forever, feels very strange. Of course I’m excited to see my family and friends again, to eat copious amounts of peanut butter and drink microbrews everyday, but I’m scared about losing my Spanish, about finding a job and a phone and place to live; about readjusting to the speed of everyday life there, even in the dead of a north Idaho winter—which will be another shock.
Still, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I made it in Quito when I was down to my last $40 and had $20 stolen from me, when I was working 60 hours a week at the hostel and at a language institute that I hated, when I could barely understand Spanish. I made it—thanks to everyone who supported me financially, morally, physically, etc. This kid on the run could not have done it without all of you, so thanks. 
Here’s to another five days in South America and a jolly return to the States.
Also, here are a couple pictures from a rock overlooking Guatape--a small town near Medellin surrounded by a beautiful lake.
The view.
With my friend Jess from New Zealand.
Just stretching on top. 
And a pimped-out mototaxi along the colorful streets of Guatape. 





Friday, November 15, 2013

Colombia: Voy a Volver

Nearly all of the travelers I met while working at Community Hostel in Quito said that Colombia was home to the friendliest people and the most beautiful city of South America (Medellín). Naturally, I had to know for myself. I've been trying to be a tough customer, but almost everything I've experienced in this country so far makes me think they're right. I've spent nearly a week in each of the two largest cities of the country--Bogotá and Medellín--and am now in a smaller city called Bucaramanga before heading up to the Caribbean coast and then back to the cold northland. 
I wasn't expecting much from Bogotá as it is a large South American city of around 10 million people. However, the area I stayed in, called Candeleria, had an incredibly bohemian feel to it, boasting tons of cute cafes and bars, lots of beautiful murals, parks, a well-known university, etc. We have artsy neighborhoods in Quito, of course, but this one was the biggest I've seen in South America. Also in Bogotá, I couchsurfed--I can't remember if I've written about couchsurfing before, but if you don't know what it is, you should definitely check it out: couchsurfing.org and watch this inspirational video

So, I couchsurfed for a few days with a girl from Bogotá named Emily. Emily took me all around the center, to museums and parks, to her university, and to a mirador of the city with some of her friends. We drank countless cups of real coffee (another reason to love Colombia) and she treated me to some local food, in addition to explaining all sorts of Colombian history and culture to me. (And her friends taught me the local (inappropriate) slang). Of course Bogotá has slums and sketchy neighborhoods and lots of pollution--in short, it's a large South American city--but it was actually much nicer than I expected. Definitely better than Lima and possibly better than Quito. 
If Bogotá surprised me, Medellín blew me out of the water. In the last couple of decades, it has gone from one of the most dangerous cities in the world (in the 1980s/1990s) and home to the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, to being voted the world's most innovative city this year. I traveled there with a New Zealander I met in Bogotá and we both fell in love.  When considering moves within the US, I like to think of the bike-ability of the city, the green spaces, public transportation, access to outdoorsy things, beer and coffee, cultural activities/the music scene, etc. Since living in South America, however, I don't think I've ever actually considered making a serious move to anywhere except for Cuenca, Ecuador, but I think it'd get too small for me. However, I now want to live in Medellín someday. It ranks super high in all of my city-ranking categories. 
First off, it has a spotless, beautiful metro system that costs $1 to get anywhere on it. Plus, the metro connects to two difference cable cars--the first cable cars to be used for public transportation rather than just for sightseeing. They connect people out in the poorer areas to the metro (and the cost is all included). In addition to this, when the mayor was turning the city around, one of his ideas was building some beautiful, covered escalators in the middle of a slum. It was symbolic as well as useful as escalators are generally in large shopping malls. This slum is on a long hill, so now the poorer people don't have to climb wayyy up this hill on their way home from work everyday. Another thing they've done is build libraries all over the city and especially in the poorer areas. Huuuge public libraries for everyone. One part of downtown, where it used to be fatal to go to has now become a park of lights, and next to it, where Escobar and others had their centers of crime, is the ministry of education. 
Also, Medellín is super green. High rise brick buildings jump out of the huge, forested mountains and hills--which is another reason that the public transportation is so important, the landscape. Because of the sheer number of trees and parks and green spaces, the city seems much less polluted than most in South America. I suppose along the biggest streets there might be a tad bit of smog, maybe a little litter, but it's mostly not noticeable. There are great bike paths and a long of cyclists, as the climate is like late spring/early summer all year long.  It's like 80 degrees (F) all year long, with some rain now and again. There's a huge, free, public pool center, with maybe 4 or 5 different pools, open to the public for free as long as you wear a little cap. There's also a large, free, botanical garden with iguanas and things. Not to mention the hip, artsy neighborhoods full of good coffee, beer, and even frozen yogurt, in addition to some of the most delicious street food. Needless to say, I loved Medellín and promise to return someday. Here's an article about the metamorphosis that's happened there, in case you're interested:
http://www.occupy.com/article/metamorphosis-medellin-once-most-dangerous-now-most-innovative-city
*Of course, Medellin still has lots of poverty, drug trafficking, and prostitution. But, the city's violence has decreased by something like 80 percent in the last 20 years. 
And here are some pictures stolen from my Kiwi friend. 
Taking the escalators. 

View from the top of the escalators. 

Cute.

In the cable car. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Talking to Strangers


Boy on bus: It’s too hot…(unintelligible)
Me: Mande? (Ecuadorian/Colombian Spanish slang meaning what)
Him: It’s too hot to wear uniforms and carry guns.
Me: Yes..(he points out the window, where a guard is stationed). 
Him: Are you from here?
Me: No, the US.
Him: You said “Mande.”
Me: I lived in Ecuador.
Him: What’s the difference between there and here?
Me: I don’t know, I’ve only been here for a day, on a bus…
Him: Is your family worried about you being in Colombia? This area is dangerous…(points at the jungle outside the window)
Me: Well, yes, a little.
Him: There are landmines in the jungle over there. Lots of guerillas.
Me: Oh?
Him: Do you like war?
Me: What? No…
Him: Why not?
Me: Because I don’t like violence. It’s stupid.
Him: Why is it stupid?
Me: Because it accomplishes nothing. Why, do you like war?
Him: Yes. Everything you see here is from war. War brings money.
Me: (Incredulous look.) That’s crazy. War brings death.
Him: Do you think I’m ugly, or just crazy?
Me: Just crazy. Maybe.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oh, The Dogs You Meet: GB

Awhile back I decided I'd write a post every now and then featuring an especially awesome person I met while on the road. Well, I have met some pretty interesting people, but I also met this dog in Cusco who I feel the need to write about right now. 
In between my first farm and waiting to meet my friend Kaitlyn, I stayed with the boys from VA and a cousin of one of them, in a hostel we had all to ourselves with an excellent view of the city. We did a little exploring in the hills one day, hiking to a few free ruins and through the streets of Cusco. On our way out of the city, we met a pit-bull black lab mix who stayed with us. Now, there are all sorts of stray dogs in South America and in the world in general I suppose, and I've gotten quite used to just ignoring them--especially after being nipped at in Quito a few times. So when this dog joined us, apart from noticing that it didn't really look like a stray--it was too healthy-looking--I didn't give him much thought. He seemed to be leading us up a trail, and because we actually weren't that sure of where we were going, we followed him. About half way up we decided to name him GB--or rather, the boys did, and started treating him as our own. If he ran too far ahead or showed interest in friending other people, we just called him and he came back. He never barked or growled, just prowled around, happy to be roaming. He was hesitant to let us touch him, but otherwise obedient, and seemed to answer to his new name. 
Anyway, GB was with us all day as we explored an old Incan rock quarry and the ruins of a temple to the moon and a monkey temple. We tried to feed him some of our bread, but he wasn't interested. He did drink some of our water, but that was all. I kept assuming he'd just leave us at some point for a more exciting group of people, but he never did. We joked that he must be a dog shaman, showing us the ancient religious sites of the Incas. 
At the end of the day he walked us back to our hostel and tried to go inside with us. By then he'd let me pet him a couple times and we'd all decided he must belong to someone or at least he had in the past. It took us a long time to enter the hostel without him because he kept running in behind us. After we finally got inside without him, GB whined and barked for about an hour while we were up in our room. It was the saddest thing. I made the mistake of sticking my head out of the window to see if he was still there after he'd quieted down, and sure enough, he saw me and started jumping as high as he could  and whining at me (we were on the second floor). It broke my heart to see how much he wanted to be with us. The guys started discussing whether they could make it all the way to Patagonia with a dog and I tried to look up and see if there was anything resembling a shelter in Cusco. Nope. 
When we left for dinner, he was still there and happy to see us. He walked with us to a restaurant, where he again tried to follow us inside and again stayed at the door whining. Inside, we discussed different strategies to get rid of him without being heartless bastards, but we had to be heartless bastards, since the hostel owners were not so keen on our new friend. 
As soon as we left the restaurant, we jumped into a cab and lost GB, then got dropped off at our hostel, hearts heavy. I stayed in Cusco a few days more after that but never saw him again. 
I'm not even a dog person, but GB was a good soul. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Wwoofing in the jungle

After three weeks of being a total tourist--which was weird after living in South America for so long--I went to another WWOOF farm, this time in the Peruvian jungle. 
Our adventure began in Lima, where Kaitlyn and I couldn't get our vaccinations for typhoid or our malaria medication because there was a national holiday and all the health clinics were closed for two days. (I know, I know, stupid. But we didn't really have a choice and look! I am still typhoid and malaria free, so whatever.) 
Anyway, we'd gotten some vague directions from the owner of the farm to catch a bus to a town called Pitchanaki and from there the town was only 5 kilometers away, according to the farm's description on the site. However, we could not find the bus company in Lima that went to Pitchanaki, so instead we got on a bus to La Merced, which people told us was close. After about 8 or 9 hours on that bus, we got a combi, or shared taxi, from La Merced to Pitchanaki. At that point, it was getting pretty late and the owner of the farm still hadn't answered his phone (turns out it was the wrong number). So, we decided we'd stay in Pitchanaki for the night and try to get to the farm the next day. We ended up in one of the most ghetto hospedajes we'd ever seen, but it was cheap! 
Pitchanaki was a lot bigger than we'd expected and there happened to be a huge celebration of the founding of the city going on the day we arrived. So, we walked around amid throngs of families and moto-taxis and into a little fair-like area, where I tried some street food and got a little sick to my stomach. We were the only foreigners there for sure, but we didn't really get negative attention, just stares and a few shouts of "gringa!" 
Anyway, the next day I used internet and emailed the farm owner, who then called us and sent his cousin to get us. His cousin, Pancho, was who actually stayed and ran the farm while the owner worked in a nearby town and only came on the weekends to bring food. Anyway, so Pancho showed up with another volunteer--a French Canadian guy around our age who went by "Ayba" but would never actually tell us his real name. Pancho was a squat little 23 year-old Peruvian guy who spoke fast, mumbled Spanish and gave us instructions that confused us even more. We had to take a cab to the town of Yuranaki and from there a moto-taxi to another town called La Florida. Once in La Florida we were to wait for Pancho and Ayba. This place was definitely not 5 km from Pitchanaki. It took us probably an hour and a half to get to La Florida, then we had lunch and waited there to get a ride up to the farm on Ayba's motorcycle. 
The farm itself was fairly large and consisted mostly of young coffee plants, which will start producing in 2015. We worked spreading sheep manure with our bare hands on each individual plant for the first few days, which wasn't as bad as it sounds. The guys had to carry the bags of manure up to the field where we worked and we just went row by row spreading it. We got weekends off, which we spent checking out the waterfalls in the area one weekend and hanging out in Pitchanaki the other weekend, which was the only place you could buy real coffee. (Most people in the coffee region don't drink coffee and if they do it's Nescafe, which is a crying shame.) Anyway, when we weren't spreading poo with our bare hands, we used machetes to cut down weeds and trees in the fields of coffee. I chopped down a tree with probably an 8 inch diameter once, because Pancho told me he'd buy me a beer if I could do it. 
We always took long siestas in the afternoon and when it rained we didn't work. Pancho was a pretty relaxed guy to work for, which was nice. He was a goofball too and we had a lot of fun joking around with him. It was a shame though, because in spite of this farm being on the WWOOF site and organic and everything, there were a lot of things they did that made me cringe. They dug huge pits for their trash and started fires with plastic and just didn't treat the place very well in general. But, not much I could do about it. 
When we weren't working, we were usually eating, sleeping, or reading. Our little kitchen was pretty hot and dark, with a campfire-type stove and a lot of flies. We ate a lot of beans, rice, pasta, and potatoes and very little in the way of fresh things since there was no electricity and no real place to keep them. It made me realize that we weren't so bad off at my other farm because at least we had spices and fresh things there. We still managed to make some pretty good food though. There were ripe bananas and pineapples once in awhile from around the farm, which was awesome, and an unlimited supply of limes from our lime trees. Also, Pancho shot what I called a Rodent Of Unusual Size one night. It was apparently a jungle delicacy, but I can't remember the name. I tried some--tasted maybe like rabbit, but I don't know if I've ever eaten rabbit...
We all slept in this open, barn-like building with little blanket dividers and a few very friendly rats. Every night one would scamper out from behind my bed somewhere and a few times ran right across the top of my bed. A little unsettling, but it was very difficult to sleep there anyway. I had a great experience, but I am definitely a mountain person. The bugs and the heat in the jungle made it super hard to work and sleep. And the birds! The birds were beautiful and amazing, but soo loud. It took me a long time to get used to hearing them. I'd stay up at night just listening to all of their different sounds--everything between leaky faucets to buzz saws. There were also all sorts of huge, brilliantly colored bugs and even some fireflies at night. And the stars were incredible. 
Anyway, I learned a little about life in the jungle and coffee-farming and I met some pretty cool people doing it. An Australian couple joined us up there as well as random cousins and friends of Pancho's occasionally, and another new girl from Washington showed up a day before we left. We developed our own little language and spent a lot of our time in the fields singing songs and joking around. Here are some pictures! 
Rodent Of Unusual Size

Nearby waterfall

Monkey, tied up at the entrance to the falls for tourists.

Rainbow over La Florida

Posing with my machete, which I named Pablo Escobar. 

View from the farm

The gang

The potty

Ayba and me and the biggest chainsaw ever.

Ayba dancing in front of the kitchen.

Baby pineapple

Coffee plant.