Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts on SE Asia thus far

IT has taken me a very long time to get the ball rolling on my description of my experience thus far in Asia. I think that there are a number of reasons for my late beginning. The easiest is that there has been no time. Pretty much every waking (and a lot of resting) moment has been spent doing som sort of activity. I think that the real reason is that it has taken me a couple of weeks being here to really be able to grasp the surroundings enough to relay them on. All of my travels to this point had been in western countries. Of course there are some major differences in the cultures, but for the most part life is the same. The landscapes were adorned with the same types of grasses and trees. Even the dirt was the same. Everywhere I went made up what is described as “Western Culture.” Things are different here. I guess I could call it “Eastern Culture,” but I still have not figured out exactly what that means. There are the obvious thins like the language 9of which I do not speak a single word), the writing (no idea there either). The problem is that that is not it. Maybe It is not for me to figure out just accept and adapt. Maybe that is what it means to be a traveler.

This is a brief recount of the trip so far

Well, back on the road again. It was a it longer break from traveling than i initially planned. But with barely one week of planning I managed to finagle my way on to a cheap flight and with another GAP group through Southeast Asia.
I arrived in Bangkok at around Mid night after a 27 hour day of travel that wasn't quite as bad as it sounds.. I managed to score a few seats in a row on the plane and was able to spread out a little bit. After a few hours of sleep I met up with the group for the eight hour drive to Cambodia. The group consists of me, Lek, the tour leader from Thailand, Mike from Belfast, Ben from Australia, Alexandra from Switzerland, Inez from Germany, Tom and Emma from England, Kieth from England, Alicia from Whales, and Dan and Melissa from Chicago , but living in Doha, Quatar.. The age range is between 20 to 52.. Of the people on the trip, Only Mike, Ben, Kieth, Alicia, Lek and I are continuing all the way to Loas.
Of the travels that I have done so far, Asia is the most different and difficult to adjust to. It is n ot just the language and the writing, it is the society and customs. Latin America had it s differences, but for the most part, it is very similar to the US, this place is like a whole new world to me.
Our First stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap home of Ankor Wat and several other Buddhist/ Hindu temples built between 900 and 1200 AD. Our tour of the temples started with a 5 am pick up to head to Ankor Wat to see the sunrise. Even before the sun rise it was hot and very humid. By 7 am it was around 94 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Our tour consisted of several breaks throughout the to allow everybody to rehydrate so that we could go out and sweat it out all over again. The temples were very impressive. Pretty much every wall in Ankor Wat is adorned with intricate carved frescoes telling tales of triumph for the king who built the it. We payed to have a guide take us through the ruins and describe the history behind all of the things we saw. I've found that many times these tour guides are a bit loong winded for my short attention span, to this one add extreme heat and a very thick Cambodian accent. I think my advice to someone else would e buy on of the $1 books from the thousands of locals selling them throughout and go through at your own pace. Siem Reap appears to have come a long way over the last several years. there are some very posh looking hotels and condos scattered throughout the area. I had trouble figuring out exactly how these places prospered considering the fact that a couple of days was more than enough time to see everything.
From Siem Reap we had a 9 hour bus ride to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Phen. It is a decent sized cit y of around 2-3 million people. It was also my introduction to what I like to call scooter frogger. Traffic laws are optional so far in SE Asia, and, judging from the way people ride, stopping a moped must be detrimental in some way. So, if you want to cross a street, the only way to do so is pick your spot and go and and never stop moving, either laterally of horizontally, never stop moving.
Cambodia has a very dark recent history and is the site of one of the most horrific genocides in history. In the early to mid seventies the country was controlled by a faction called the Kamir Rouge. Their goal was to return to Cambodian routes and create idealistic agrarian society. The plan for doing so was to murder all those who had the education and courage to speak against the ideals of the ruling force. The Kamir Rouge began by clearing out the cities. Sending millions of refugees to the countryside. They then began getting rid of slaughtering teachers, college professors, journalists, doctors, lawyers, ect. Not only were the head of the family killed, but also their wives, children, parents, and in many cases brothers and sisters for fear of retalliation in the future. We saw the SK 21 prison where people were held and tortured before they were sent to the killing field about 4 miles outside of the city. The prison is pretty much the same as it was back in the seventies and the rooms are filled with the mug shots of all of the men women and children who were held there. Only four of the over ten thousand people who were held there survived either the prison or the killing field. There are 14 gravestones of the last fourteen people to be killed by the prison guards just before the prison was overtaken by rebel forces. The beds on which they were shot are still in the cells and photos of the decayed bodies are hung on the wall. It is the most horrifying place I have ever seen.
Much more somberly, we went to the killing fields. Immediately you notice the pagoda shrine built to honor the dead. the nine story shrine is filled with the exhumed remains of the 80 plus mass graves found on the site. The first three floors of the pagoda are stacked with the 9500 skulls the other six are stacked with the bones that have been found so far. Next on to the killing tree where guards would nonchalantly smash the heads of babies before they threw on their mother's already lifeless body the graves. The rest of the tour is a blur. I was in shock for the next couple of days. I have never been to Auschwitz or any other concentration camp, but I cannot imagine a more cruel place and time in history.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Charles Darwin was right

I felt really alone after the attempted mugging. Partly because I was by myself , but mostly because it dawned on me that I was utterly helpless. I decided to do two things that night. First, I was going to change hostels for one that had people to talk to, and second that I had to go to Galapagos. My thought process was that had lost all faith in Ecuador. the only way to redeem it in my mind was to visit the place that had mystical power to inspire awe. It was the only way for me to redeem Ecuador as a decent place. So, after my prepaid two days were up I changed to another hostel in the old town. It was a bit more dingy and well worn, but it was full of fellow travelers to share experiences with. I was able, through other people, to get the low down on visiting Galapagos. Basically, you are screwed. There are two airlines flying into the Islands and the price is set at $400 for the 1200 mile round trip ticket. Once in Galapagos, I was told, it was relatively easy o find a cruise at the discounted rate of $100-400 per day based on the class of boat on which you embarked. The boats vary from 36 foot converted fishing boats to 300 foot luxury liners. All include meals and guided excursions to the various islands. I also found out that cruise ships that offered live aboard accommodations were not allowed to take people scuba diving. All that could think about when I thought of when I thought of living aboard a 36 foot boat, the only one that I could afford, was me spending numerous hours with my head over the side in the rapture of sea sickness. So, I chose to stay on the land and take diving excursions from Punto Aroya on the Island of Santa Cruz. The most populated of the islands.
The day finally came and it was time for me to bid a due to my least favorite city that I had visited thus far. By the way, I also learned from the people at my new hostel that being robbed in Quito is almost a right of passage. Nearly everyone that Ii spoke to knew someone or was robbed themselves at some point. So if you ever go to Ecuador, keep your staY in Quito as brief as possible. Maybe the odds won't catch up with you. Back to Galapagos. I left early to catch my flight. When I arrived at the airport, it was already bustling with tourists decked out in full safari gear. It was as if Ii had walked into a Colombia Sportswear fashion show. I was in my standard jeans, t-shirt and flip flops and was a little worried that I had not come prepared. I wondered if perhaps I too needed a travel vest and a wide brimmed hat with the optional drop down mosquito/bee net. I wondered if the wilderness of the Islands was going to warrant some extreme clothing and preparation, of which I had neither. True to form i said screw it and decided that I would go ahead anyway. Prepared or not I'll figure it out when I get there.
Now is the time to tell you about the process of going to the Island. It is definitely a process. First, at the airport, don't make the mistake I made and wait in line for 30 minutes behind the guy with the telephoto lens that could see the faces on Mars. Once you get to the front they will send you, as they did me, to the counter where you but your $10 Galapagos tourist card and have your bags checked for any contraband that could disrupt the Island's ecosystem. Then back into line for another 20 minutes. The flight from Quito will stop to pick up more passengers in Guayaquil. Then off to the Galapagos. The flight took about 3 1/2 hours total. I arrived to the Islands at about 11:30 local time ( Ecuador is Eastern time Galapagos is Central,) Once at the Baltras Airport you go through a border crossing like immigration process, then you pay $100 National Park entry fee. So before you have seen one sea iguana or blue footed boobie, you have already spent around $510 per person. Once at the airport, you load into a bus for the 10 minute ride to the canal between Isla Baltra and Isla Santa Cruz. Then a five minute ferry ride across the canal. Then onto another bus for the 45 minute ride (or 2 hour ride if your bus breaks down as mine did) to Punto Aroya. All in all it is a pretty long day of travel and compared to the rest of Central and South America an expensive trip.
My first order of business in Punto Aroya was finding accommodation. I did not have a reservation anywhere, but there were a number of places suggested in my guidebook so I figured there would not be a problem. There was a problem, no one had any rooms for less than $100 night. Apparently everyone else was using the same guidebook I was using. I finally found a room at the crappiest hotel on the Island for the ridiculous price of $20 a night. I then headed to the dive shop to get fitted for the equipment for the following day's dive.
Understand that to this point my description has been somewhat negative on travel to the Galapagos. I just want everyone to understand the biggest lesson I have learned thus far in my travels is that no great experience comes without some discomfort or substantial financial sacrifice to get there or, as in the case of Galapagos, both. The difference with Galapagos is that every inconvenience is rewarded by the natural beauty of the Islands. My flight afforded me views of the crystal blue waters surrounding the Islands. My ferry ride gave me a first glimpse of an aquatic iguana and seals swimming in the water. Even the breakdown of the bus was a blessing. We stopped in a small parking lot next to an ancient volcanic crater where i had enough time to hike around for a few minutes until the replacement bus arrived.
My first day of diving changed everything. We met at the dive shop for our dive briefing then loaded into taxis to head back to the canal between Baltra and Santa Cruz. Once on the boat we set out for the 1 ½ hour ride to the dive site, Cousins Rock. As soon as I hit the water I knew that this was a special marine environment unlike any that I have had the privileged of diving. Once we got to the bottom 75 feet below the surface, I took a look around. Most of my diving has been in the tropical waters of the Carribean Sea . The warm water there is ideal for the growth of coals and most of the diving is done around these coral formations. The reason that underwater Galapagos is so unique is that it is in a tropical environment, but the cold Humbolt Current brings cold water North from Antarctica. It is the Humbolt Current that encourages the growth of plankton, which in turn attracts whales, whale sharks, and a multitude of smaller sea dwellers. The other dwellers attract predators like dolphin, seals, penguins, hammerhead and other types of sharks even killer whales. Rather than using the coral reefs for cover and protection, small fish use the rocky, volcanic underwater topography as cover. The rock formations alone are worth the dive though. At the bottom we were greeted by a massive school of silver shad. The school covered around 40 square feet or so and there were more fish than you could ever imagine. Swimming through the school actually blocked the sunlight and the only light that was visible was reflecting off of the fish's mirror like scales. After a few minutes of swimming into the darkness of the school, the divemaster beckoned us to set off in search of more underwater spectacles. The water was a comfortable 85 degrees and I was having trouble figuring out why the dive shop had forced me into the 7mm full body wet suit that was extremely hot in water of this temperature. After we swam for a while I figured it out. They are called thermoclines. Thermoclines are what is left of the Humbolt current as it is split up around the Islands. Their location is completely abstract and can be somewhere one day and gone the next. I quickly learned how to recognize them though. They appear like mirages on a hot road. Visibility is decreased, then you are hit with a 15-20 degree drop in water temperature. I chose to dive without a hood and after 5 minutes in a thermocline I thought that my head was going to freeze and fall off of my body. I wore a hood for the rest of my dives.
The highlight of my diving trips were not even when I was in full scuba gear. I was with part of the crew from a yacht that was moored in the bay at Puerto Aroya (more on them later.) We were motoring from one dive sight to the next one when the captain spotted something large surfacing on the water about 300 yards away. We headed over and the surfacing became more and more frequent once we got close enough our guide indicated that they were false killer whales. Instead of making sure that the whales were safe to swim with, we all grabbed our fins, masks and snorkels and dove in to have a closer look. The animals were around 12 feet long and weighed about 900 pounds. They moved in the water effortlessly and quickly swam out of sight. The next thing I knew, there were 10 or so swimming right at me. I watched in awe as they swam under and all around me. It was truly an experience I will never forget. The pod of forty or so whales swam away from us so we headed back to the boat to follow them some more. We followed for about 10 more minutes, then they disappeared.
As beautiful and awe inspiring the landscape and as exciting the animals, my favorite part of being in Galapagos was the people who I met. I was really lonely in Quito and really wanted to find some people to hang around with. On my second day of diving I met some truly great friends. Theo is originally from England and now lives with is Danish girlfriend Mette in Copenhagen. We were instant friends. They both work as managers in restaurants in Copenhagen so it was easy to find common interests and stories to tell. after the first day I met them, I spent every day thereafter with them. My first Saturday in Galapagos was the celebration of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Mette, Theo, and I loaded up in a water taxi to attend the celebration at Tortuga Bay, a beautiful white sand beach about ten minutes from Puerto Aroya. There, we met the crew of the Aquilla . The Aquilla is the dive yacht of some Russian billionaire, the y were not allowed to tell us who. They had come to Galapagos because one of the owner's friends was planning a trip to Galapagos. It turned out that the guy could not come so they were all free to do as they pleased. Working on a private yacht is a pretty sweet gig. The owner is on board about two weeks a year. I had several conversations with Shane, the chef, about life on board. They travel to exotic locals, usually two to three weeks before the owner so that they can do all of the activities in the area. This allows them to serve as tour guides when he arrives. Almost everyone was at least dive master status. The yacht slept eight guests plus eight crew, had a formal dining room, a beautiful kitchen, a tv room, a pool, hot tub helicopter pad, two decompression chambers, its own compressed air to fill tanks, full scuba gear for up to 20 people, a it towed a thirty foot dive boat behind for times when the yacht was too big. Needless to say, this thing was a money pit that could never be filled. I guess that is what you do when you have billions of dollars. The craziest thing was that this was one of the Ruskie's 5 yachts.
Because of the people I met there, I stayed in the Galapagos for almost 3 weeks. We had some really great times. It is one of my favorite places that I have ever visited and I will go back some day.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Challenges of Travelling Alone

Initially, I intended to include my travels in Galapagos in this posting. Because it is pretty negative and I had such a good time there I am going to post this story separately. Here goes.
Once I had my fill of lechona in Bogota, I decided that it was time to head on. I Thought about catching the bus south to Cali, but I only had a few more days left on my visa so I decided to head on to Ecuador. My flight from Bogota did not leave until 4 and I did not arrive in Quito until almost 8. I chose a hostel in the area of Quito called La Mariscal. It was also dubbed Gringoland by the locals because of the heavy concentration of foreign tourists who made this their base in the city. Gringoland is home to the most modern and diverse collection of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in Quito. I emailed several hostels for a reservation and went with the only one who answered. The hostel was technically in Gringoland, but it was on a quiet street a few blocks away from all of the hustle and bustle of the main concentration of restaurants, ect. It seemed like a good choice. I checked in at about 9 with a nice man who had no grasp whatsoever of the English language although the hostel was advertised as English speaking. I was starving at this point, so once I was checked into my room I headed to find something to eat. It was around 9:30 at this point and my limited experience of Quito didn't give me any signs that it would be any different than any of the other cities that I had visited to that point.
I headed in the direction of the main area if La Mariscal. As I did so the streets became more and more crowded with locals. When I rounded a corner I spotted two guys in their mid twenties headed my way. I had a feeling that there was going to be a problem as soon as I saw them, when they altered their direction to match mine after I maneuvered to avoid them, I knew there was going to be a problem. They walked up to me in a very aggressive manor and kept repeating “gringo, you got money, no problem.” To this point I have found that ignorance is often very beneficial in altercations with foreigners. So as they surrounded me I played dumb and acted as if I did not comprehend what they were saying. All the while I continued toward the crowd of people and restaurants about 100 yards away. When they persisted I told them that I did not have any money for them. They pointed at my wallet in my pocket and repeated their demands. I had about a head length above each of them and weighed more than both of them put together so at the point when they really became aggressive and started trying to stop my progress, I pushed them away. I did not want to start a fist fight in the middle of the street in a foreign city where I knew no one and had no backup. At the same time I was not going to be intimidated by these two assholes without some sort of evidence that the fight would have been in their advantage. So I kept pushing them away, not in an aggressive manner, just in a way so that I could at least have some restaurant to duck into if necessary. Once we reached the more populated area of the street and they were gone. Not in a shameful or guilty way, they just turned around, giggled a little and walked away. I continued behind them for the rest of the block contemplating my next action. It seriously considered clocking the two of them over the head and curbing them like Ed Norton in American History X. That was how angry I was. These guys didn't really want to rob me, they wanted to see what it took to get money off some gringo walking down the street. After the incident I continued on to dinner and stewed over the fact that I had been this far without incident and within 2 hours of arriving in Quito this happened. After dinner i headed back to the hostel very cautiously and was constantly on guard for the next couple of days.
Once this happened I knew that I wanted to get out of the city and head somewhere a little more laid back, so I headed to the travel agency and booked my trip to Galapagos. That is another post.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Bond and Kate's Excellent Adventure

Now that I have made all of you aware of the safety of Colombia, I feel I should at least inform you of some of the things that there are to do there. As you know my visit began in Cartagena. I booked a room in the “new” town ina nice hotel called Hotel Da Pietro. After a couple of days of paying $80 a night i quickly realized that other accommodations were necessary. I went to the “backpackers slum” just outside of the walls to the old town and found a tiny room for $15 a night. Most were spent visiting museums, walking around the old city, and trying to avoid the sweltering heat of my room. The old city was walled by the Spaniard in the 1600 to protect the city from pirate attacks. It is absolutely stunning. The narrow streets are set up in a sort of maze with blind corners throughout. The affect is the old town takes a few days of wandering before it is navigable. Once I had the old town down, it was time to go. I had talked to some people at the hostel who told me that Medellin was a very nice place to visit. I had four days before I had to be in Bogota to meet my friend Kate, Medellin was on the way, why not. Because I spent so much money on my first couple of nights stay in Cartagena, i decided to go cheap and take the overnight bus to Medellin. It was a 14 hour trip. Off I went to the bus station. Throughout, my travels through Central America, bus was the mode of travel. I knew that I wanted to get on the first class bus, the problem was which one was the first class. There were 20 or so different bus company kiosks scattered around in the bus station. Once I had wandered around for about twenty minutes or so I met a French girl who had been traveling around Colombia for a couple of months. Jill (her name shortened, I won't insult her and try to spell her real name) was headed to Medellin as well and was nice enough to point me in the direction of the bus. The bus was around two hours late and once it did finally arrive it was nearly full. I was instructed to take the seat behind the fully reclined man. By fully reclined, I don't mean a few inches like an airline seat, I mean lazy boy reclined. I had to enter the seat at a 45 degree angle and his head was perched in my lap. After a couple of hours I was ready to slap him. I tried every trick in the book to get him to give me just a little leg room. I tried pushing, drumming, wiggling all this seemed to do was make him more set on keeping his seat reclined. All Jill could do is look back at me with pity. We stopped a few hours later and several people got off. I sprang into action and took a nice seat in the front of the bus. The rest of the trip was uneventful.
The city of Medellin is set in a valley surrounded by mountains. It was dark when we arrived at the top of the mountain and began the spiraling trip down into the valley. From the top of the mountains Medellin looks like a very small place. It is similar to flying over in an airplane. Small dots of light were all that could be seen. As we descended we arrived in the outskirts of town the light started taking shape. This being my first time to Medellin I thought that this was the actual city. I really began to question my decision to come. Shanty towns and sheet metal buildings were all that could be seen. People on every corner poised to jump any gringo who came across their path. Fortunately, we continued through the shanty town and eventually to one of the most modern bus stations that I have ever seen. It was more like an airport than a bus station. A fleet of taxi waited to wisp me off to my hostel. The name of the hostel is Tiger Paw. It is owned by a couple of American expats one of whom was a big Clemson fan. I held my tongue about the Alabama game this year for fear of being tossed out on the street. The hostel is centrally located in town and is very close to Zona Rosa, which is an area with several restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
My two days in Medellin were spent touring around the city and talking to people I met at the hostel. I met one guy who was Colombian born, raised in the US and had been in the shipping industry for several years. He had returned to Colombia and decided to open a restaurant. After a long discussion and several beers he persuaded me to come and have a look at his restaurant. I told him would be by the next day for lunch. The restaurant was in a shopping mall across the street from the newly constructed Bancolombia headquarters. Even with the location, I didn't have the heart to tell the guy that he would be closed in less than a year. IT just goes to show thought that even in foreign countries, it is all about location. The food was not very good either.
In my short time in Medellin I also befriended a group of guys who had been living there for about a month. There were two Canadians, an Irishmen, and an American. good group of guys, but their trip had stalled in Medellin because of the women. It is difficult to tell this side of the story without sounding like a chauvinist, but there is something that has to be said about Medellin. It is home to some of the most beautiful and friendly women in the world. The women are the main attraction in Medellin. Yes, Botero is from there and there are several different fine museums, but there are many people on trips similar to mine who never make it out of Medellin because they fall in love with the women of Medellin.
I was fortunate though, I had to be in Bogota to meet Kate so after a very short stay, I flew on. I got to Bogota at around noon, hopped in a taxi and headed for a hotel that I found in my travel book. A little side bar, to this point I have been traveling with the Frommers Guide to South America. If any one of you ever goes to South America, DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK. Yes, it gives you information on the towns and the locations of sites, but the hotel information is lacking and it is really difficult to decipher the prices. Rather than giving you the prices it gives you dollar signs. So $ is cheap and $$$$ is really expensive. The problem is that the signs change for every city so a hotel with $ could mean $20 in Medellin and $60 a night in Bogota. If you want $30 for a paperback book then I expect you to tell me how much it costs and not in dollar signs. Ok, sorry about that. I got to the hotel and payed a hell of a lot more for it than I intended. I met Kate at the airport at around 9 that night. Kate had the Lonely Planet guide to Colombia so the next day our first order of business was to find another hotel. We ended up in the Casa de Platypus, not to be confused with the Platypus Hostel, its sister hotel. The hotel is a converted hundred year old house with two very sizeable common areas and a common kitchen that I would dream of in my own house. We spent a couple more days in Bogota, got O.G.ed (over golded an I'm Gonna Get You Sucka reference) at the Museo de Oro, got drenched in Zona Rosa then decided it was time to head for the coast.
After much deliberation I decided that my memory of the bus from Cartagena to Medellin had subsided enough for me to get on another bus. To break up the trip we bussed from Bogota to a small town i the highlands called San Gil. It is the hub of ecotourism in Colombia and it the gateway to Chcaque national park. I zip lined and canyoned in Costa Rica so the only activity I was really interested in was rafting the class V rapids. Kate on the other hand wanted no part so after a short night of sleep we headed to the bus station again and the Caribbean coast town of Santa Marta. We caught the 5:30 bus from ???? to Bucaramanga so that we could catch the big bus to Santa Marta. Our driver for the first leg must have been late for an engagement because he drove the winding mountain roads like it was an indy car race. Kate actually dry heaved at one point. I think I am finally used to rough driving so it wasn't too bad for me. 17 hours after we started, we arrived in Santa Marta. It was high season Colombian travelers and the city was packed with funny hats, peddlers, and sketchy looking types. Even though we had had a rough few days of traveling, Kate and I decided to head on after only one night in Santa Marta. This trip was not quite as far though. It was a fifteen minute cab ride over the mountain to the sleepy beach town of Taganga. For me, Taganga was the diving hub of the area, for Kate it was a nearby beach, for both of us it was not Santa Marta We found a place (in the Lonely Planet Guide) called Hostel Techos Azules that seemed nice. If you ever go to Taganga you get there by going across the beach, over the rocks and up the hill its the one with the blue roofs hence the name. The hostel has a spectacular view overlooking the beach and town of Taganga. We got a great room with a nice balcony and steps away from the hammock laden open air cabanas. The caretaker, Johnathan, is a college student who is happy to speak at length in Spanish even if you can't understand what he is saying. The place is protected by Johnathan's three rottweilers, Blackie, Mama, and the puppy Blackie 2.
Once we got settled in to the hostel, Kate and I headed down to check out town and to find a place for me to finish my advanced diving certification. We went by one place offering a night dive for 70,000 pesos or $35 and I jumped at the chance to night dive again. I really enjoyed the dive, but the best part was one of my friends who I had met in Medellin (Colin the one from the US) was there to night dive as well. We spent the next couple of days hanging out with him and a Phd Engineer from Stanford named Laura.
While we were diving, Kate made another interesting discovery. All of the TV's in the hostel were tied in to the main satellite box in the lobby of the hotel. Kate was nice enough to mend a couple of my t-shirts that had holes in the armpits. While she was doing so she had the tv on for some background noise. 23 hours of the day the tv was set to international soccer. But from the hour between 6:30 and 7:30 became known to us as Porn Hour. We never actually figured out who it was, but someone tuned the TV to the porn channel during this time for the first few days. It was pretty funny. They would watch for a couple of minutes until someone walked into the lobby, then the channel would change back to soccer for a couple of minutes then back to porn. Our second night at the hotel, Kate woke me from my late afternoon nap to prove the validity of porn hour. It was great until some smartass Aussie stuck his head out the door and asked whoever was in charge of porn hour how to change the channel. Porn hour was over after that. Colin told us that he walked in and found a Norwegian guy watching the porn one day, the guy claimed that he didn't get this stuff on TV in his country, to which Colin commented “fair enough” and went on his way.
On our third night in Taganga we met up with a group of Irish twoo named Jenny, Matt (one of the Jenny's brother) and Dave (the other Jenny's boyfriend.) They talked us into going to Tayrona National Park. To get to TayronA we had two choices there was the 1 and ½ “BOAT RIDE OF DEATH” on a fishing boat from Taganga or we could take 20 minute bus to Santa Marta, a 1 hour bus from Santa Marta to the entrance of the park, a 10 minutes jeep ride to the trailhead, then a 2-3 hour hike to the beach. We opted for the hike. The trip to the trailhead was pretty uneventful, a full chicken bus, a ride in a rusted old Landcruiser with a man with no nose, and the option to pay $30 and ride a horse to the beach. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that when horses are involved, I choose to walk. Kate didn't really have a choice. So we set out with a couple of rather unfriendly Israeli girls in tow. We had been warned about the trail from the people who told us about “THE BOAT RIDE OF DEATH” and it wasn't much better. “Hot, humid, and knee deep mud” was the description. They left out knee deep mud mixed with horse urine and horse manure. Kate and I had not planned to stay the night, but when we finally arrived at the swimmable beach at noon, we knew that we were not going to turn around and head back in 3 hours to catch the last bus to Santa Marta at 6. All of the $15 a night hammocks were taken so we had to go with the $50 a night tent with the damp mattresses instead. Finally, at around 1 we were able to enjoy the beach. The beaches look like they are taken fro a magazine or a movie. White sand beaches, turquoise water, palm trees, and no buildings to ruin it. It was truly amazing. Our Irish friends made it by around 3 and we spent the rest of the day hanging out with them.
The rain started that night at around midnight. It had been still before that with no breeze whatsoever so the tent was stifling. The rain was welcomed at first. When the downpour came at about 2 and the tent started to leak. It was a little less welcomed. By nine when the rain still had not stopped I began to wonder how I was ever going to get out of this place. We hiked in on a dry day, there wasn't a cloud in sight and the trail was still muddy and slippery. By the time the rain had subsided, all of the horses were gone. That left us with only one option. The boat ride was described to me by a quite shaken Australian girl as “the closest I have ever come to death.” The Irish had to bus and hike in because the police in Taganga stopped the fisherman from taking them the day before saying “we already lost two today.” The thought of trudging through mud, horse urine, and horse manure was enough encouragement to make me willing to go through the danger and expense of the boat ride. But, there were no boats either. I wasn't willing to spend another fifty bucks for a horrible nights sleep so when the rain slowed Kate and I packed up and headed on our way. We were crossing the soccer field when we were stopped by a guy asking if we wanted a ride to Taganga. I quickly agreed. The anticipation was the worst part of the trip. There were a couple of occasions that made me slightly nervous, but for the most part it was fine. We arrived with no problems in about 1/3 the time it would have taken to get back.
As many of you know, when I drink rum, my mouth tends to get me into commitments that I may not normally do. Usually it involves cooking some sort of elaborate meal in the middle of nowhere. This time it was cooking a Louisiana meal in a decent sized city in celebration of the Super Bowl for the Irish and whoever else in the hostel wanted to eat. No problem. That is unless you are me and you are cooking anywhere other than the US. Yes, the gastrointestinal bug got me again. It started with heart burn, so I took an antacid, but it progressed into a full blown outbreak right at the time I was supposed to cook for everybody. The last time I was sick and cooking I was on the upswing of the illness, this time it hit me while I was cooking. I was making gumbo and the smell made me nauseous. But fortunately, once again I had a sous chef who pulled through. Kate actually made everything. I came down occasionally to check on the progress, but she did it all. Apparently, everybody really enjoyed the food too. I wasn't well enough to show my face and the quarter hourly trips to the toilet were pretty exhausting as well. Thank God Kate was there because there was no way I could have pulled that one off.
Funny enough, one I could take my antibiotic I was better. So the next morning I woke up and went diving. I risked the bends because Kate and I were flying back to Bogota that night at 10:30. Luckily, I had just enough time because I didn't have any problems with the flight. The next morning it was time for Kate to return to the States. I spent the next few days wandering around Bogota. I probably walked about 20 miles in two days I didn't have a plan or an agenda so I just wandered. In my wanderings I found my two favorite things in Bogota, the Botero museum and Lechona. The Botero museum was a gift of Fernando Botero's 100 million dollar collection of his own art pieces and those of other great artists including Picasso, Monet, and others. The museum was free and I spent several hours there while I wandered. The second discovery was Lechona. Lechona is a whole pig seasoned with various herbs and spices, stuffed with rice and yellow peas, and roasted in an earthen oven for 12-24 hours. The end result is a smoky, tender, delicious pork with rice and peas that have been cooked by the dripping fat of the pig. The skin is a mahogany color and has the most delightful crunch that just tops off the dish perfectly. I found the Lechona street vendor the day Kate left and had it for lunch and dinner every day until I left Bogota. The cost for a portion and a drink was $2.50. Other than Lechona I found the food of Colombia to be really bland and really boring. Put it this way, I ate Mcdonald's for the fist time of the trip in Bogota. After much deliberation, I resisted the urge to go back to Medellin and headed for Quito. That is the next story.

Until next time,


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Colombia why the hell are you going to Colombia?

Once again I have lied to all of you. I said last time that I would give a summary of all of the places that I had visited from the end of the last blog on. About an hour and a half and a half page of writing I got bored. All of those places were very interesting and I had a great time. The problem is that I cannot write that way. As difficult as it is to write on the tiny little keyboard, it is ten times worse when you can't keep your eyes open to write.
All of that said, I am beginning again here in Colombia.
I arrived here about three weeks ago from Panama. My initial plan was to take a sailboat from Panama City (Panama not the Redneck Riviera.) From what I had heard from a hippy painter from New York who was vacationing in Bochete, The ride was a pleasant one. After further review, I found that the cruise lasted four or five days with a three day stop at San Blas Island off the Panama Coast. And there was a hostal in PC that could set the whole thing up for me for about $350. My research into flights led me to believe that the cheapest flight to cover the 400 or so miles from PC to Cartegena would cost around $400 dollars and connect in Miami. The cruise seemed to be a much better option and a much greater adventure.
I arrived in PC a few days later and headed straight for the hostal to book my trip. It was owned and operated by a couple of Aussies. When I ask them about the trip, a look of caution fell over their faces. Apparently, the Carribean is pretty rough this time of year and there was only one boat going to Cartegena any time soon. When the ride was described as “paying $350 to puke for three days” I decided that alternate plans had to be made. Those who know me know that I am not a seaman and even in the lightest chop, I am hanging my head over the side in a matter of minutes. I was so disappointed that I considered foregoing the visit to Colombia all together so that I could buy a plane ticket that seemed to be a better value. I told the Aussies my concerns and they immediately said, check out Aires Airlines. I had never heard of Aires and it did not show up on any of the searches that I conducted at travel web sites. $150 done, Colombia here I come.
I arrived in Cartegena at about noon. Not knowing a soul, able to speak very broken Spanish, and all that I had ever heard were horror stories about kidnapping and car bombs by the warring drug cartels and the rebel armies attempting to over throw the government. I expected to get off the plane, be handed a flack jacket, and hail mary. There wasn't much encouragement from home either. I was directed to the State Dept. web site by my mother. Others sent me warnings via newspaper reports and second or third hand information. The Airport wasn't too encouraging either. Aires flies primarily double prop planes, each of which makes a few stops in there route, sort of like a flying bus. When the plane landed, I was the only one of the 30 or so passengers to get off. I was standing on the tarmac and was quickly ushered tocustoms by one of the Aires employees. It was about a quarter of a mile from where I landed to customs. Not that the airport was that big, but that was how far away we landed. I guess you pay extra for the proximity to the terminal. There was no one in Customs except for 2 immigration people, 5 soldiers and a Rottweiler with a leather Hannibal Lector Mask over its face. When I approached the immigration people I discovered the little Spanish i could speak was irrelevant because Spanish in Colombia is spoken at a rate that would impress the bald guy from those 1980's commercials. (Think about it, he was the one who talked really fast.) After several no se and no comprendos (Spanish for I don't understand what you are saying to me) the immigration guy just waved me on out of frustration. It was a similar experience with the soldiers who were manning the customs table. After 15 minutes I was through.
Bear in mind that to this point, I had been travelling on the GAP tour. For two months, I had every destination habitation and meal planned for me on routes that had been tried and tested by thousands of other people before me. This was my first destination of my independent travels. Everything else was training camp.
I gave the Rott a pat on the head and headed for a nearby cab. I had booked a room in a mid range hotel called Hotel Da Pietro in the newer part of the city called Boca Grande. I squeezed into the cab (the cabs here make a Mini look like an Expedition) and off we went.
It was high season when i arrived in Cartegena so the street were packed with scantly clad Colombians who were enjoying the sun and cool waters of their Carribean Coast. We arrived at the hotel, I checked in, I walked about a block and a half, grabbed a late lunch, went back to the hotel and stayed there for 18 hours. For 18 hours I did not do anything. Partly because I had been traveling for two months at break neck speed through Mexico and Central America and was exhausted: and partly because I was petrified of the evils that were lurking outside my door on the Colombian streets. I had drawn up scenarios of people scouting me out in my cab ride and just waiting to take me away.
After a night of rest and several hours of debate, I decided that I could no longer just stare at the wall of my hotel room. I decided to head to the fortified “old town” or Ciudad Antigua. The city had been fortified by the Spaniards in the 1600's to protect it from pirates when Cartegena was one of the primary colonial shipping ports. I figured a museum would be a safe place so I told the cabbie to take take me to the Museum of the Inquisition. It was recommended in my guide book so I figured it was as good a start as any.
The old town reminded me a lot of New Orleans (accept for the giant wall all around it) narrow cobblestone streets, stuccoed buildings with grand courtyards. It was beautiful. I spent the day wandering around the maze of buildings and plazas with a new discovery at every turn. The greatest thing about my tour was that it gave me the comfort to continue exploring.
After five days in Cartegena, I realized something. This place is no more dangerous than some of the places I have lived. Someone in my situation would have to go looking for trouble or have to be really stupid to get into a dire situation. Yes, there are people here that will kill you. No, you do not go to the impoverished neighborhoods in the cities. No, you do not wear your rolex out at night. But, if you are willing to open yourself to the people, they will take care of you like a family member. Colombians are fighting back and are winning victories every day against the people who once held them in fear. I imagine that it was similar in the days of prohibition and the control that the mafias had in America. Progress has been made and of all of the places that I have visited, I have not felt more secure than in Colombia. Yes, there are swindlers and pickpockets, but you just have to be aware. Not necessarily on guard, just aware.
Colombia has mandatory military service for all men (and women I think) after they complete high school. Graduates have a choice of one year of service in the police force or two years of service in the military. Because of the shortened commitment, many of the youths choose to join the police force. This mandatory servitude gives the country an ample supply of willing and able men and women to stand on nearly every street corner with machine guns. Literally, in the larger cities, there are police on nearly every street corner.
I guess my moral of this blog is to relay the fact that fears of Colombia are obsolete. My visit here has been nothing but a pleasure. The people are caring, hospitable, and generous. The infrastructure is modern. And the security is probably better than the US. So don't write off Colombia based on Hollywood movies or even State Dept warnings. I know that I say this about everywhere I visit, but truly Colombia is one of my favorite countries in the world.

I will continue to work on the synopsis of Central America and hopefully will finish soon. Also, I plan to fill all of you in on the places and cuisine of Colombia just know for now that my favorite city is Medellin, Beach town is Taganga, and food is Lechona.

Until Next Time (Sooner, I promise)


ps headed to Ecuador tomorrow, Country #2 in South America

Friday, January 23, 2009

Christmas in more ways than just presents

I believe that every adventure has a defining moment. The moment that everyone who was involved will always remember. They could remember it in a fond or a negative way, but they remember all the same. I had my defining moment.

We traveled from Honduras to Nicaragua's tourism hub, Grenada. The city is dusted with colorfully painted houses that look quite simple from the street, then open up into grand centralized gardens and living areas. Grenada is a place that you have to try very hard not to like. The people (for the most part) are very friendly and the sights and sounds are mesmerizing. Our hotel was located on the main tourist drag that connected the city center to the lake. The first day we took a tour to check out all of the volcanoes and crater lakes that dust the landscape. They were interesting, but the tour was a full day of just looking at vistas and big holes in the ground. By the end, I was read to get back to town.
I had been traveling with most of my travel partners for quite a while. At some point I had promised a Christmas dinner cooked by me. There were only a few days left before Christmas and people were calling my bluff. Fortunately, the guy who led us on our tour was also a cook for the restaurant across the street from our hotel. I consulted him for advice on the best places to buy product. The issue was that we were not going to be in Grenada for Christmas, we were in the lake island called Ometepe. Cooking dinner for everybody would have been vastly more simple in Grenada than Ometepe. There are modern grocery stores and a huge market daily. Our hotel in Ometepe was a bumpy, one and a half hour long bus ride from anywhere. So, I had to buy everything that I needed for the dinner in Grenada. The produce for the meal was not an issue. There were some very nice root vegetable available in the market as well as some very good fresh goat cheese and other essentials. The rest I bought at a modern grocery store on the edge of town.
So, at this point, I have all of the side dishes planned, ideas for the sauces and dessert. Now for the meat. Once again, my mouth gets me into trouble. Apparently I promised to do a whole pig. I am not sure what I was thinking all I can say is that is was during my birthday celebrations that I promised all of this.
I found a guy in the market who said that he could get me a live pig if I wanted it. I wanted it live because I don't think that there is a cooler in all of Central America large enough to hold a large pig and ice. So, live it would have to be. How do I get a live pig on a two hour bus ride, then and hour ferry, then an hour and a half bumpy bus ride, then kill and butcher. The whole idea sounded like a nightmare and not worth the trouble. I had pretty much written off the whole idea and was prepared to just go and buy some chicken. Then Mauricio told me that he had one guy that he could call on Ometepe who may be able to get a pig there. Nesto is our savior's name. He told Mauricio that he had two baby pigs. Perfect!! Less cooking time, more skin, and more tender meat. We had a pig.
I decided that the best way to do them would be Hawaiian Lua style. Build a fire add rocks, top the rocks with banana leaves, add the pig, top with banana leaves top with dirt and let it go. Simple. I planned the rest of the meal as well. We were to have suckling pig, goat cheese, bacon, and caramelized onion potato gratin, rice and beans, roasted beets and carrots with rum glaze, and dulce de leche rice pudding for dessert. For those who did not want to eat pork there was banana leaf wrapped tilapia.
Everything was set. We arrived in Ometepe with product in hand ready for dinner for our group of 17 and possibly a few more stragglers. Nesto came to pick us up from the ferry and assured me that everything was taken care of on his end. The pig was at the butcher, the wood and banana leaves were in a truck waiting for the pig, all was to be delivered at seven the following morning. We had a fisherman delivering the fish in the morning as well. No problem. I was confident and ready. So confident that when I ran into Sarah, my tour leader in Mexico, and her group of fourteen women and one man, to join us for dinner. So, double the size of the party the night before, on an island in the middle of a lake in Nicaragua . I was so confident that I proceeded to continue my daily Nicaraguan ritual of consuming copious amounts of rum the night before.
3 am, I awoke with a rumbling in my stomach. Four hours and many trips to the bathroom later. I was fully immersed in my first case of food poisoning of my travels. I had to meet Nesto and my Sous Chef Jamie at 7. After a few hours I realized that this was not just a passing upset stomach, but there was work to be done. I drug myself off of the bathroom floor, showered and sat and waited for everybody to get up. Jamie met me at 7, right on time. Yet no Nesto. 7:30, 8, 8:30 no Nesto. Finally at ten, Nesto showed with not two suckling pigs, but one 70 pound pig. Great, the cooking time just doubled and the pig arrived three hours late. I am as sick as I have ever been, forcing fluids and trying to tell Jamie exactly how to make the food for which I had no recipes. Ten hours before service I started the fire that was to heat the rocks that were to cook this pig that was double the size that I had expected. Although, I really didn't want to disappoint them, I knew that my group would understand. Sarah's group was another story. I really did not want fourteen women in my case about ruining their Christmas and stealing one of their nights in Grenada.
Jamie and I rang the dinner bell at 8:30. We gathered everyone around the mound of dirt that was to be my greatest culinary triumph or my greatest failure. There was no heat coming from the mound. As we dug into the dirt, it got hotter and hotter. When we first uncovered the banana leaves I knew that all of my fears were unfounded. The pig was literally falling apart. Apart from a little dirt, it was some of the most delicious pork some of the people had ever tasted. My stomach was still not right. I didn't eat any of it. Some told me that it was their favorite Christmas meal ever. For me it was my favorite meal I have ever cooked. It was an opportunity to create an experience that people would never forget.
We finished the night exchanging gifts, drinking rum and dancing. Of course our families were on our minds, but it lessened the pain of being so far away. It was an experience that I will never forget and would not exchange for any reason.

Until next time,


PS. The people who did not get enough credit for the dinner were Mauricio, Nesto and most of all Jamie. Thank you all for helping me create an experience that I will never forget.

PPS. I am way behind on my blog. Sorry. My next post will be a synopsis of the places that I have visited to this point without too much description so that I am able to catch up.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I love Central America

Just got done with a very long travel day from Utila, Honduras to Tegucialpa, Honduras. Headed to Grenada tomorrow via a twelve hour bus ride. Utila was really nice. I just hung around the hotel the first day. The second day, I took three of the five dives to become Advanced Diver Certified. My first dive was to a shipwreck 30 meters/100 feet down. I saw a multitude of sea life the highlight was giant grouper probably 100 pounds or so. The second dive was to the reef and the third was a night dive, The night dive was incredible I imagine that it is the closest thing that I will ever get to being in space. At one point we turned of our lights and waved our hands through the water to expose the photoflorescent organisms, it looked like sparks flying around our hands. Pretty amazing, I think I may have caught the diving bug. It was hard for me to leave this morning.
I apologize I have once again gotten ahead of my self. I am still about a week behind on my postings so I will begin from the end.
We left Rio Dulce and spent one night in Antigua to break up the length of the bus ride to Panahachel. The largest of the five cities on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Panahachel, revolves around the lake and visits to the other cities via water taxi. I guess the highlight for mee was breakfast at a hotel that sat on the side of a cliff. Other than that I took a day off and just did some picture posting at the internet cafe. don't get me wrong Panahachel is worth a visit. The city and the lake sit in the shadow of three very large volcanoes so the views are very beautiful. There is also a very large contingent of retired ex pats living there. I was just ready for a day to catch up.

We left Panahachel for Antigua. It was a decent bus ride, only a few hours or so. Arriving in Antigua is like visiting another time. Cobblestone roads and stuccoed Spanish Colonial buildings and Churches. The roads were a simple grid that were easily navigable. The relative safety afforded myself and my fellow travelers a little more freedom to branch out and check out the town on our own. A large group of us signed up to climb the Picaya Volcano. It was a highly recommended tour because you are actually able to get up close and personal with lava. What was not discussed was the difficulty of the hike. Antigua was the the biggest city that I had visited in a while so I went out to enjoy the night life and try to meet up with some of my fellow travelers. I was home by two and the van to the volcano was coming at six. Normally, going on four hours of sleep would have hurt a little, but it was doable. I got on the van at six and we were on our way. When we arrived at the base of the volcano we were greeted by a dozen children selling walking sticks and by men with horses offering to take us up for 40 dollars. I thought that the price was a little steep so I bought a walking stick and prepared for the hike with a liter of water. The beginning of the hike was a short paved section with a 35 degree slope. Needles to say I was winded after the first 200 yards. I think that the men with the horses saw the bloodshot in my eyes mixed with my size and sensed that I was a shoe in for the $40. They followed right behind me and said repeated “hey man you want a mountain taxi” or “Caballos, make it easy man.” I think that it was their prodding that helped me make it up to the top. I also took a salsa lesson in Antigua so watch out ladies.
From Antigua we had another long ride to Copan, Hoduras. Copan is a quaint little town best known for the Mayan Ruins that are about five minutes outside of town. By now I am definitely ruined out. But I went and took a quick 45 minute tour of the ruins. For those Archeologists and Anthropologists out there, Copan has some of the best preserved sculptures that I have seen in all of my visits to Mayan Ruins.
Of the fifteen of us who had traveled from Playa del Carmen to Antigua only eight of us remained. Our new group was seventeen. We were still getting to know each other in Copan. So it was a pretty calm night. I know the eight of us who had been together for a while really missed our friends who had to go back to the real world. The new group consists of Mauricio as the tour leader, Harley, Sophie, and Anne (all of whom I have been travelling with since Mexico City;) Kevin from Ireland, Carolyn from Toronto, Melissa from Seattle we added her sister, Shelly in Antigua as well as; Bill from Seattle, Jamie and Laura from Ontario; Alex and Christiana from Finland; Richard from Germany; and Denise from England (she is also in her seventies for those who think that they are too old to do something like this;) and finally Rebecca a Navy Brat from all over the place as a tour leader trainee.
After Copan we chicken bussed it over to Ceiba which is where we caught the ferry over to Utilla. For those of us afflicted by motion sickness I would highly recommend either Dramamine for the ferry or kick out the $45 for the plane to Utilla. The ferry ride is choppy on good days and pretty dangerous on bad days. Once you arrive in Utila every thing is ok. The town actually reminded me a lot of the small Cajun towns in southern Louisiana. It is a very small community with its own language. The Bay island were once part of the British Empire, but the islands became part of Honduras in exchange for Belize not too long ago. The people speak a blend of English with a Cajun/Island dialect that is impossible for outsiders to understand. Some of the natives speak Spanish, but some would much rather be part of England than Honduras and have resisted fully integrating into the society by refusing to speak the national language. Like Caye Caulker, Utila is pretty focused on diving. It is not a place to go and have a beach vacation. There are a couple of beaches to visit, but they are covered with up sand fleas and one of them actually charges to go there.
We got early for the 6 am ferry from Utila then for a long bus ride over to my least favorite place in all of Nicaragua, Tegucialpa. We arrived via 5 hour chicken bus then the longest and most frightening cab ride of my life. The city is built in the rolling hills at the base of a volcano. We sped up and down hills through markets within inches of pedestrians at break neck speeds. The traffic was unbelievable as well, apparently they didn't get the memo on the efficiency of traffic lights. Yet another experience though. On to Grenada and my most challenging culinary experience ever.