Holidays in Bolivia

Off and on during this trip, I’d think about Christmas and get a little apprehensive. It’s not that I’ve never missed Christmas at home with the family; as a nurse, you have to get used to working on holidays and there have also been times when I just didn’t have the money for the flight home. But it’s still a time for friends and family, and we would be without both in the middle of Bolivia, so it just gave me a little trepidation. Would my homesickness flare up to new heights?

So it was with not a little relief when we made arrangements to stay with the cousin of the husband of the cousin of Craig’s dad (a very close family relation, obviously). We were introduced through email and kept them up to date on our progress towards Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia and where Karen and her family lived. We finally nailed down a date for arrival–the 23rd of December, and probably leaving around the 27th (I’m a big believer in the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,” and I don’t like to overstay my welcome).

Left to right, Pily, Faby, me, Craig, Karen, and Toñi. With the exception of Karen, those were all nicknames (apodos).

Of course, these would naturally be quite busy days for Karen’s family, right smack in the middle of Christmas, but part of the reason for staying with a family, and why Karen was doubly insistent on us staying for the holiday, was to alleviate any homesickness we might feel. In any case, we were hugely grateful. Little did we know, however, how busy the Castillos would keep us to prevent said homesickness!

Karen and Pily lived in a really comfortable, modern house in a gated community, had a part time maid/cook, a backyard grill, and we had our own room (Faby, the youngest daughter, gave it up for us). In short, it was REALLY nice! Craig and I kept saying, “Wow,” as we took a tour around the cozy house. We had a couple of hours to settle in before we were whisked off to start our Castillo adventures.

Day 1: After arriving quite late in the day, a barbecue restaurant dinner with some of the family. Meat! Then off for some well-earned beauty sleep.

Day 2 (Christmas Eve, or La Buena Noche): Craig and I enjoy a walk and some fast internet in the main plaza, after taking a 15 minute can ride to get there. Santa Cruz only has a little less than 2 million inhabitants, but the city really sprawls. There’s a nice view of the city from the top of the cathedral.

View of Santa Cruz from the cathedral on the Plaza 24 de Septiembre.

That night, after Pily and Karen got off work, we headed to Karen’s mother’s house yet again. After a round of cheek kissing to greet everybody, and before Craig and I got really settled, all of a sudden it was, “Okay, goodbye!” and off we went cheek-kissing around the room again to say farewell before we went to Pily’s father’s house. There, we again made our way around the room kissing cheeks (more on the air kiss here), before sitting down to a hasty dinner of picana, a delicious stew that is a Buena Noche tradition in Pily’s family. As soon as we had cleared our plates and drank our fill of cider (commonly drunk during the holidays in both Bolivia and Argentina), it was off-we-go again with more goodbye kisses.

Picana–delicious!! I need to get this recipe.

We then raced back to the house for a intimate family dinner of picana again (Cruceños love to eat, we learned), while the clock struck midnight and all around us we could hear small fireworks being set off. It sounded like the Fourth of July. The family then opened their gifts (it’s traditional here to open them at midnight on Christmas Eve), and Craig and I even got gifts! For me, a really beautiful necklace made with a bolivianita gem, also known as ametrine, and for Craig, a nice shirt to augment his meager wardrobe. Needless to say, Karen and Pily are the epitome of perfect hosts.

Our beautifully set table for our Buena Noche picana.

Day 3 (Christmas Day): The only day that Karen and Pily didn’t have to go to work, we set out for Karen’s mother’s house again to spend the day with her large, extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kids all running around and, of course, eating! I don’t think Craig and I ever felt pangs of hunger during our stay there. It was a really fun time, and reminded me of my own family gatherings: a lot of shouting, inappropriate jokes, and a language other than English. Several hours in, Craig and I were starting to feel pretty brain-tired from all the Spanish. Even though everybody took care to speak slowly and explained difficult-to-understand phrases, it can still be pretty overwhelming. But it’s definitely great practice, and although I still have a long ways to go, I feel pretty good about my ability to at least get my point across.

Christmas with the Feeney side of the family.

Day 4: We weren’t sure what to really do with ourselves on this day, so when Pily invited us to his work, out in the countryside, we were happy to accept. He owns a small factory for manufacturing fertilizer, and showed us around the place, as well as the surrounding areas that had cows in feedlots, a fairly new concept of agriculture in Bolivia. It was interesting to see the conditions of the campo, as well as the workers that Pily employed. They all had huge wads of coca leaves stuffed into their cheeks, and worked totally barefoot in the manure, also refusing to use the facial masks that Pily provided. They lived where they worked during the week, and then went home for weekends. Pily told us that they got paid $2,000 Bs. per month, about $300 USD (the minimum wage in Bolivia is $1,000 Bs/month).

Cows in the feedlot. This breed of cow (I think the Nelore) can support tropical temperatures and is also used widely in Brazil. Pily told us the large skin flaps under their chins (a dewlap) characterizes the genetic purity of the breed.

Craig and I always welcome insights to different ways of life during our travels, so we really enjoyed our visit to the campo, something that most travelers probably don’t get to see. I’ve heard of one backpacker describing a similar experience as “more authentic”, and perhaps it was because English was his second language, but I found it a poor choice of words. The way Karen and Pily lived compared to those in the campo is no less or more “authentic”. To say that, just because Santa Cruz is more modernized and westernized, seems strange. Everybody is still a South American, after all–why should one group claim to be more “authentic” than another?

There is, however, a very marked rivalry between the cambas, largely of white or mestizo origins who live in the wealthy Eastern lowlands of Bolivia, and the collas or quyas, largely of indigenous descent of the Western altiplano or yungas region. Bolivia has the highest percentage of pure, indigenous population in South America, about 60%, and Evo Morales, its president, is the first democratically elected president of indigenous origin in Bolivia (and one of a very few in Latin America on the whole). His presidency has been marked by large unrest in the Eastern regions, who feel that his democratic socialist policies undermine their middle-class way of life (which it probably does), and that Morales does not represent them at all in his politics (because he probably doesn’t).

So Bolivia is a strange country that is split almost in half in terms of ideology. Although Karen and Pily often joked about the collas and the way they spoke or their way of life, you could tell there was an small undercurrent of hostility. Still, Pily said that it was undeniable that Morales had made some very beneficial economic changes to Bolivia (such as nationalizing the extraction of natural resources, and kicking out international corporations who had a history of exploiting the country). It’s a small country, but there are some deep divides, and it was certainly educational to learn about it first-hand from Bolivians themselves.

That night, it was Karen and Pily’s 22nd wedding anniversary. We went out for a very nice dinner and Karen showed off her many gold bracelets, one for each year they had been together, that Pily had gifted her on each anniversary. She says that it’s not a tradition that all Cruceños practice, but Pily is especially romantic (he often serenaded her with guitar and singing in their early days). It was a nice way to spend our last night in Santa Cruz, with an intimate family dinner. By then, we were already feeling a lot like family (the gringo portion of the family)!

Karen and her wedding anniversary bracelets (not all the same).

Day 5: Our last day was marked by the usual business that seems to permeate the Castillo way of life, with two birthday parties (although one was canceled, giving Craig and I some much needed rest). Craig learnt that his car back in Seattle had been broken into (argh), so things were a little fraught before we finally made our way to the airport for our flight to Cochabamba. The farewell was bittersweet–we had really been made to feel at home in Santa Cruz, and would miss everybody quite a lot. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas abroad and Craig and I are super grateful for the hospitality and welcome that we were given. I’ll never forget it, and I hope we’ll be able to meet again someday!

Eating Argentina

Argentines LOVE their dulce de leche!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires, punch-drunk after a 24-hour flight (with layovers) from Bógota, we went straight out for dinner following our hostel check-in. The concierge/owner had recommended a place nearby called Bar Cao and said it was typical Porteño food (the people of Bs. As. are called Porteños).

We ordered from their Picadas menu, which was similar to a charcuterie menu: pieces of meat, pâté, goat cheese, pickles, etc. with some bread. We washed it all down with a draft dark beer for Craig and a draft cider for me. Perhaps it was the cider, or the deliciousness of the food, which resembled nothing we had found so far in South America (i.e. nothing fried, no starter soup, cheese that tasted like cheese, excellent alcoholic beverages), but I avowed there and then that Argentina had the best food by far.

Not a great photo of picadas, since I was probably tipsy already on food and cider. Goat cheese, escabeche (marinated chicken in vinegar with onion–one of our favorites), cherry tomatoes, pate with gherkins, artichokes, and cheesy bread with anchovy.

I haven’t been wrong in this assumption, especially in Bs. As. where the food has been much more international and less indigenous (which makes sense as Argentina’s indigenous population is minimal; more on that in a later post). And don’t forget, of course, the grass-fed, free-range cows that supply the best steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Grilled steak and provolone cheese at La Cabrera, a restaurant in Palermo. They have a daily happy hour from 7-8pm where everything is half-off! Yummmm. Best steak I’ve ever had.

In fact, Argentine cuisine is heavy on the meat and dairy, light on most everything else. And because of their Italian influence, the food heavily favors pizzas and pastas (sounds good as long as you don’t mind your pizza slathered with more mozzarella than you can possibly eat and not sustain coronary artery disease as a result… an Italian girl that we met just shook her head in disgust when we mentioned the pizza).

The pastries facturas are also quite tasty. For our two week sojourn in Bs. As., our hostel provided fresh media lunas for breakfast: delicious, chewy croissants brushed with a sugary, sticky coating. They look like regular croissants but don’t have that flaky texture–just pure, buttery softness, not unlike eating King’s Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Since then, the media lunas have varied in quality; some dry and hard, others flaky and too salty; but the golden pinnacle of media lunas is out there and you just have to find it.

Craig holding a mangled factura called, confusingly enough, a tortilla. They were hard, dry, flaky, and fairly disgusting. We hated it when we had to put up with them at continental breakfasts.

Now let’s talk about alfajors. We encountered these when we first arrived in South America, in both Chile and Argentina (the latter are much better–don’t bother with those strangely shaped Chilean ones). The traditional alfajor consists of two cookies slapped around a dulce de leche filling, perhaps rolled in some coconut or dipped in chocolate. I’m not a fan of dulce de leche, which is too sweet and tastes very caramel-y, so luckily there are about a million variations of the alfajor: fruit, chocolate, or cream filling; covered in glaze, meringue, white chocolate, etc.; hard or soft cookies (even Oreo-brand makes an alfajor!). The possibilities are endless, but the best alfajor I’ve ever had remains the fruit-filled, glazed ones we found in Villa General Belgrano. I’ll have to try and whip up a substitute for it when we get home–there are some foods you just can’t live without once you’ve tried them.

The Oreo alfajor–probably my favorite. I’m such an American.

Droooooooooooool.

As we moved north, the indigenous population increased. The food in the Salta and Jujuy region have been more influenced by ancient tribal cuisine as opposed to Italian, and although I think in my deprived state I prefer the European stuff, I can’t deny that indigenous food has its merits. The empanadas here (as well as being baked versus fried, a big bonus) are filled with a variety of things; chicken with provolone, spinach, llama, samosa-like filling with a lemon tang (called Arabia, which necessitated a long discussion of whether this was racist or not). They are unfailingly good, as long as you eat them piping hot from the oven–Craig got some food poisoning from one that wasn’t reheated. They’re also often just called salteñas and some say that the salteña empanada is the best in all of Argentina.

A very Salta, indigenous dish, Locro. A type of stew with corn, yucca, beans, and meat.

Another food item called a tortilla–a giant omelette. Yum!

One last influence from the Italians that was extremely delicious, but also strained my wallet a bit, was the ice cream (I think in some places it was gelato, and there was a lot of sorbet, but mostly it was helado). It was difficult to go anywhere without a Grido, the Argentine equivalent of a Baskin Robbins. You could find one even in tiny towns such as Tilcara, where the population barely crested 5,000, you could always count on finding a Grido. But the pinnacle of ice cream had to be the Freddo, where two tiny scoops would run you about 44 peso, at least in expensive Bs. As, or about $6 USD by official exchange rates. We tried it once, and although it was probably the best ice cream in Argentina, I’m not sure if it’s really worth the price. Ice cream is always good, after all, and the curve is not really that skewed when it comes to quality.

All in all, Argentina was a great reprieve from the fried foods of Colombia, and the indigenous menús of Perú and Ecuador. If I were to choose a country whose cuisine I could see myself eating for the rest of my life, I’d probably choose Argentina. But I’d miss Asian food, which is still sadly lacking wherever we go. And hold half the mozzarella please!

Argentina’s idea of a salad–tomatoes with a single leaf of lettuce.

Matambre – meat wrapped around carrots, greens, and boiled eggs, and then itself boiled in milk and served cold.

Chuleta, any kind of grilled steak, and salade russe, which at times only means carrots, potatoes, and peas with a squirt of mayonnaise.

$1 for a carafe of wine (half a liter), served with ice. Perfect for a hot day.

 

The unappetizing sandwiches de miga, with bread cut from huge blocks into thin sheets. Not filling, and not super tasty either.

Yep, horse in a can.

A milanesa, a flat slab of meat breaded and fried, in sandwich form. This order was more enormous than usual, and had some extra goodies, like a fried egg and ham.

Choripan, sausage (chorizo) in bread (pan), with some chimichurri, a delicious garlic sauce that can be hot, and some light beer (what else in South America?) to help wash it all down.

Argentina is known for its wine, which can be had in large quantities for extremely low prices.

Last, but not least (at least in Craig’s mind), Fernet is King. A bitter, herbal liqueur, said to help digestion, it came in all sorts of forms, some of the cheaper brands scorned by Porteños. I can’t say I like its taste, but it does have an agreeable smell.

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

There will always be times, when traveling, that you will smack your forehead and think, “Argh, why did we do that?!” Our entire foray into Uruguay was a 4-day-long, giant smack on our foreheads.

It wasn’t necessarily Uruguay’s fault. The weather was fairly horrible the entire time we were there–gray, cold, windy, and rainy. Besides getting American dollars in Uruguay, the only other purpose for our visit was to enjoy the beaches on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. Apparently, they can be quite pleasant when not freezing cold. But we only made it as far as Montevideo (which is still on the banks of the Rio Plata before it meets the ocean), when the 50 F degree weather nixed that idea.

 

Colonia del Sacramento – Our first day in Uruguay was our only day of good weather.

We spent our entire time in the country wondering what we should do. Should we stick it out and hope for better weather when we reached the coast? Should we just call it good and head back to Argentina? Which route should we take? There are so many choices and options when you have an open plan of travel that it can be overwhelming. Craig and I we’re pulling our hair out trying to decide. Saying, “It’s up to you,” or “Whatever you want,” is also supremely unhelpful in instances like this.

Montevideo – grey skies reflected.

Finally, we decided to just leave. The weather didn’t look like it was improving and Uruguay was, to our surprise, actually quite expensive anyway. We decided to take a six-hour bus to Salto, on the eastern border, and stay for a night. The next day, we’d visit the thermal baths in Salto, and then cross the border over to Concordia by ferry in the afternoon. From there, we’d take an overnight bus to Iguazu Falls.

In theory, it all sounded like a fine plan. But we didn’t anticipate certain things such as…

  • The cheapest hostel in Salto we could find was super expensive and really grotty–not worth the price at all, especially because it didn’t include a breakfast!
  • The ferry to Concordia wasn’t running because it was raining.
  • The buses to Concordia left too early or too late for us to both go to the thermal baths and still catch an overnight bus to Iguazu.
  • By the time we made it to Concordia, all the cama seats were taken, relegating us to semi-cama, which recline at an angle of only about 120 degrees (Cama goes from 140-160, usually. We have yet to experience the magic of 180).
  • Also at the time of our arrival in Concordia, everything was closing for siesta, so we starved for about an hour looking for a restaurant that was open.

So it seemed things weren’t going too well and we were wondering how we could have done any of it better. Then we met the Russian couple.

The Russian couple had stopped us in Salto and asked us how to get to Concordia that night, which we told them was impossible on a Sunday unless you took a taxi, which would be an exorbitant amount. They said they thought they’d try for the taxi anyway.

Mmm, bus food! But at least they gave us food–something we haven’t had since Peru.

We then met them again in the Concordia bus station the next day, waiting for the exact same bus as us. “What happened?” we asked. Apparently, the taxi was too expensive (could have seen that coming), and they decided to stay at a hotel in Salto and then take the earliest bus to Concordia at 7:30am. But since all the buses to Iguazu are night buses, they then spent the next 12 hours waiting around the really crappy bus terminal. Which is probably why they seemed so happy to see us. That, and because we spoke English, and they spoke no Spanish.

They then regaled is with the story of their travails in South America so far and suddenly, Craig and I started feeling much better about ourselves.

The Russians flew into Asuncion, Paraguay first. Their rolling luggage case then broke because they wandered about seven kilometers trying to find their hostel. They ended up buying one of those old lady shopping cart things to replace it.

Then they went to Mar de Plata, south of Buenos Aires. We’re not sure if they flew or buses, but either way it would have been at least a 24 hour bus ride, or a very expensive ticket. From there, they went to Montevideo by way of BsAs. And that’s were we met them, on their way back up half of Argentina to get to Iguazu.

So in just several days, they managed to zig zag across a fairly large country to almost the exact same spot that they started in! They also told us they’d be going back to BsAs so the immense distance they were backtracking just grew even more immense! They had received really crappy exchange rates for their euros (we got 14.2 pesos per dollar, they got 10 pesos per euro), and had failed to take out US dollars in Uruguay, due to some banking restrictions or something.

When we arrived at Puerto Iguazu (I slept fairly okay despite the reclining angle, but whenever I woke up, the Russians seemed to be awake still… sleeping on a bus is a learned art), we told them about our hostel, its prices (which we thought were very reasonable), and that they were welcome to come check it out with us. They declined, citing reasons of wanting to find a private en suite room that was also cheap. Hah! Isn’t that every backpacker’s dream? And not likely in such a touristy place, but who were we to criticize?

It began raining in earnest shortly after we arrived at our own hostel, so we just hoped the Russians had found something quickly. We also hoped we’d meet up with them again at the Falls, just to see what happened.

Our wish came true as we were leaving the park the next day–the Russians were in line to buy their entrance tickets.

“How are you guys?” we asked.

The answer was not so good. Their old lady shopping cart had fallen apart as they were searching for hostels, so they had to just go to the nearest one which turned out to be awful. Cockroaches and giant tarantulas “as big as a mouse, and hairy” were crawling around their room. They were afraid to turn off the lights when they went to bed in case they were eaten alive. Basically my worst nightmare. Even our worst hostel experience doesn’t even come close to that.

They also failed to ascertain the price of the park entrance and hadn’t brought enough pesos. “Should we even go? Is it worth it?” they asked us.

Craig and I just gaped at them. They came ALL the way back up north just to see these falls, and now they were thinking of backing out of the whole thing because of a little matter of the entrance fee costing a bit more than they thought? “YES!” we said. Those crazy kids. I just hope one of them didn’t accidentally fall off a railing or something… I wouldn’t be surprised.

So, yes, there are times when I want to smack my forehead, Uruguay being one of them. But if I had been having an exhausting, pest-filled, no Spanish speaking few weeks like they had had, you can bet I’d be doing more than smacking my forehead. I’d probably be on my way home post haste! It’s great that they’re trying… it’s really commendable. But a little research and care could make their trip so much better. Craig wanted to take them under his wing and tell them all his traveling knowledge, but they didn’t seem too keen on the advice we had given them up to that point, we weren’t sure how receptive they’d be.

But now we can always say to ourselves in times of trouble, “At least we’re not as bad off as the Russians!”

It’s Iguazu Falls and a disappearing Craig! Oh, Google+, you’re so crazy.

Cabo de la Vela – The Middle of Nowhere

“Please come with me! Pleeeaaaaase,” said Lenny, a new friend that we had met in our Santa Marta hostel. He adopted a puppy-dog stare, which on a 22-year-old Vietnamese-American was surprisingly effective. Lenny reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy–soft and adorable–and I was a little worried about him trying to do something on his own.

I looked at Craig and said, “Well, we COULD change our plans to go earlier.” I knew that he had been wanting to go to Cabo de la Vela, but to be honest, I didn’t know much about it except that I’d have to sleep in a hammock. Having company on a trip that has a lot of potential to go wrong is never a bad thing since it keeps me from strangling Craig, so I told him we should go with Lenny.

“Yay!” was Lenny’s reaction when we told him we would accompany him to the ends of the earth. It was gratifying to see somebody so excited to hang out with us, but we also knew that he had been trying to convince everybody in the hostel to go to Cabo de la Vela for the past week, and Craig was the only one who had actually heard of the place.

Our preparations began–we knew we wouldn’t need much in the way of clothes; it would be so hot that the only two purposes that they would serve were as 1) a reflection of our modesty and 2) protection from the sun. As we discussed what to bring, the gaps in my knowledge of Cabo were filled in by Lenny’s enthusiasms and by Craig’s cautions.

Lenny: “You can roll down a sand dune straight into the ocean!”

Craig: “Accommodation might be really basic, though. I don’t think they have running water.”

Lenny: “They have really cheap lobster! Lots of lobster!”

Craig: “And the hammocks will be on the beach, out in the open.”

We bought snacks, Lenny made half a dozen PB&J sandwiches, and finally, we were all packed up and ready to go. The night before the journey was to start, Craig began behaving like a boor, a sure sign of either anxiety or stomach issues. After his fifth groan, I decided to ask him what was up.

“I’m just worried about you,” he said.

“Oh? Why?” I asked, as if I’d never had a complete mental breakdown in the face of rustic lodgings.

He gave me a look. “What if you hate it?” he asked, with the implied Like you’ve hated some other, similar things unsaid.

“Well,” I hedged, “I know what to expect, and perhaps if I just keep thinking about it as camping, it’ll be fine, no matter what. Besides, what if YOU hate it?”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “There’s that.”

On that pleasant note, we went to bed and were eating breakfast the next morning when Lenny came out of the dorm, his face a mixture of guilt and pain. He proceeded to detail the previous night spent mostly on the toilet and how he was worried that this present bout of traveler’s diarrhea would not be conducive to traveling for 6+ hours to Cabo.

“I’m so sorry! Please don’t hate me,” he implored, using those damn puppy-dog eyes again, to which I have no defense. In any case, it was evident he felt bad enough about missing out on the trip–his flight back to the States was imminently approaching and wouldn’t leave time for trying to get to Cabo again later.

“We’ll eat some lobster for you!” we called as we left him standing forlornly in the lobby of the hostel. We wouldn’t have our third-party buffer; Craig would just have to allow for some strangling if things went wrong.

Arriving in Cabo took nearly the entire day and involved four modes of transportation: 1) the taxi to the bus terminal, 2) the bus to Riohacha, 3) the colectivo (shared) taxi to Uribia, and 4) the truck to Cabo. All of these modes added up to about $65 for the both of us and were as we expected. Transportation always astounds me in South America. The longest we had to wait for any of these rides was the 20 minutes in Riohacha for another person to completely fill the colectivo taxi. Our only hiccup was the last truck to Cabo. We were dropped off in Uribia on a street that seemed to serve as a public market. We were directed to the back of a pick-up truck, already packed with people and goods, and the driver quoted us a price that was way above what Craig had expected.

“Gasolina es carisimo ahora,” he said, dismissing our complaints. We were about to turn away when he called us back, “Bueno, cinquenta para ustedes dos.” Fine, fifty for the both of you. It was still above our price range, but as Craig and I expect things to be slightly more expensive than we’ve heard, it was acceptable. We climbed aboard and squeezed in on the wooden benches lining the sides of the truck. Almost everybody going to Cabo is either a Wayuu (the indigenous people of the area) or a tourist. In this truck, we were the only tourists. It was strange to hear another foreign language besides Spanish again.

The truck already seemed to be filled to capacity, but the driver managed to fit a few more people in. By the time we left, there were 9 other people ranged around a mountain of sacks filled with clothing and food. The truckbed was covered with a handmade metal and wooden shell, onto whose roof was also lashed some other dry goods. We bounced off, and the Wayuu laughed as Craig put sunblock on; we couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the meaning was clear. Gringos are probably pretty weird to them.

Bracing against the wind in the back of the truck from Uribia to Cabo.

Not being able to shift an inch on wooden benches while barreling down a dirt road was not very comfortable on the rear parts of our anatomy, but we knew that with every stop, the truck would get emptier. Finally, after disgorging one woman and what seemed to be her family’s entire yearly supply of food and clothing, it was just us and we were upgraded to the cushy seats in the cab. About 10 kilometers away from town, we passed another over-laden truck and we glimpsed two gringos in the back, with the same astonished faces that we were sporting after an hour and a half of dusty wind blowing through us.

Our driver stopped and told us this other truck would take us the rest of the way without us having to pay more. We climbed out and handed him the agreed-upon amount. “No, you owe me $10,000 more peso,” he said, bringing the cost back up to what he originally quoted before we bargained him down.

We were furious, but completely at his mercy. “If you don’t want to pay, you can just walk the rest of the way,” he said. It was understood the other truck wouldn’t take us unless we paid him the extra money.

“You lied,” I said. He gave me a smug grin. We paid him, as we had no choice. Getting taken advantage of just because we’re foreigners is always a strange thing… it skirts a grey line between our own privileged status as travelers and the right of locals to charge us higher prices, or at least try to. If the driver had never agreed on a lower price in the first place, it would have been fine. But because he increased his price later when he had an opportunity to do so just really grinds my gears. I think it changes the game from simple bargaining to pure thievery.

It wasn’t a great introduction to Cabo, but the other two foreigners in the truck were a nice Austrian couple who sympathized with us. When we arrived in town, one of the Colombians clinging to the side of the truck said that we could rent hammocks with his family for $10,000 COP per night (about $5 USD). He led us to a three-sided shack situated 20 feet from the flat, waveless expanse of ocean, and hung up our hammocks for us.

Our hammocks. The Austrians were on the other side of the divide.

I should probably now explain my aversion to hammocks. It started in Huanchaco, Peru, a little beach town where we stayed several nights. They had several hammocks there for people to use, and at first glance, they looked pretty inviting. Who doesn’t love napping in a hammock, right? But the problem is that hammocks are reversible. So when you lay down in one, you could, conceivably, be resting your head in the exact same place that somebody else’s dirty feet have just been. And believe me when I say that I’ve seen backpackers with some pretty gnarly feet–you know, those crazy hippies that walk barefoot everywhere. You might as well just smear a lot of mud and dog poop on the hammock, that’s how I feel about it. Hammocks now make me cringe.

But I had brought a couple of secret weapons with me: my sarong, and my sleeping bag cocoon. Together, these allowed me to overcome my totally ridiculous aversion to the hammock by completely insulating myself from it. Nonetheless, sleeping in a hammock for an entire night is not, as most things have turned out to be, as romantic or adventurous as you’d think. It’s mostly just uncomfortable. In natural hammock position, your body is in the shape of a banana, feet and head elevated. This becomes tiresome after awhile (about as long as an afternoon nap). But if you scoot around so that your body is diagonal in the hammock, you can almost achieve a flat position. I figured this out by observing the natives–nearly everybody in the tiny town also slept in hammocks, without pillows.

In most respects, Cabo was as rustic as a civilized town can get. On the edge of a barren desert and just steps away from the ocean, it seemed like a strange, isolated place to build a town. We had arrived in the off season, and it was hard to imagine things being more lively when tourism was up, but we had heard that the place could become so full that a bed or hammock would be hard to come by. We walked through the only street, running between the line of mud and brick houses-slash-businesses and more three-sided shacks like ours.

Desolate little place.

The family whose hammocks we were renting owned a small store, full of dry goods, candy, shaving razors, and dusty boxes of ampicillin. I doubt a doctor lived in town–perhaps the stores dispensed medications as seemed fit? The floor of the two-roomed house was dirt, and there was no running water, as Craig had warned me. All of their fresh water (potable or not) was brought in from Uribia. Just after we arrived, I wandered into their abode (also where we could store our things so they weren’t exposed to theft on the beach), and asked if I could use the bathroom.

The man had his hands full of some kind of raw fish (what would become our dinner), and yelled at the woman to help me. As she bustled around, filling up buckets with water, the man asked me, as they all eventually do, what my heritage was. Asians must be a rare sight in that out-of-the-way place. Finally, the woman said the bathroom was ready for me.

“We use the sea water to flush the toilets, so just use that bucket there,” she said, pointing. O-kay… I was an adult. I could figure this out. After I had done my business, I stared at the bucket.

Then I opened the bathroom door and called out, “So I just put this water in the toilet??”

“Yeah, yeah,” they said.

“Right here?” I asked, tipping the bucket into the toilet bowl.

“Yeah!”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes!”

Oh well, okay. I suppose if I had known anything about plumbing, this wouldn’t have been such a mystery to me, but I always thought pushing the handle down on a toilet not only let water from the tank into the bowl, but also opened some unseen barrier into the sewage system. Craig explained a u-bend to me later.

“Something new for you, eh?” the woman asked after I had marveled at the water swirling down and suctioning away with that same gurgle that I knew so well.

I laughed at myself. “A new experience!” I said. She smiled complacently, probably used to the idiocy of gringos by that point.

For dinner, we had salpichon, a shredded fish dish that is quickly becoming a favorite. There were plenty of moths and flies, but for a wonder, there were no mosquitos! The woman (I never did figure out anybody’s relation to each other) told me that it was too dry for mosquitos to thrive. Hooray! At least one luxury had arisen from the lack of anything’s ability to survive in that desert.

The electricity only ran in the evenings in Cabo, from sunset until about 11:00pm. As soon as it was on, neighbors began crowding into our proprietor’s hut, and they sat glued to the 20-inch TV for the rest of the night. There might not be running water, but at least there were telenovelas.

As soon as we went to “bed”, a cacophony of dog barks began. Since the spontaneous orchestra didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, I put in my ear plugs and thus deprived myself of falling asleep to the lull of ocean waves. Oh well, the ocean was so flat and still, it probably wasn’t going to be very soothing anyway.

After a restless night trying to find the perfect sleeping position in our hammocks (hint: there isn’t one), we woke to a blindingly hot day. Craig’s bright idea, then, was to hike to a rock, Pilón de Azúcar, which we were told was about an hour away. We set off, and immediately the heat seemed to weigh us down. We had brought tons of water with us, but the rock seemed to taunt us for the next hour; it never seemed to get closer in the shimmering air of the desert.

Hiking to that rock in the middle of the desert.

Finally, we plodded up to it only to discover that it was actually the other side of the small peninsula the town was situated on. Since we had no idea we were even on a peninsula, and the man who told us to hike to the Pilón neglected to tell us that there was a beautiful beach there, we hadn’t brought our swim suits. So we just sat there for awhile, admiring the view and the crystal clear waters of a much nicer beach than the one we were sleeping on, and wishing we could go for a swim. After hiking up and back down the rock, Craig decided that, for our greater good, we should hire a motorcycle to take us back. So we squeezed behind the driver and the three of us rode over the dirt and dust to arrive back safe at our little hammock hut.

Beautiful beach at Pilón de Azúcar.

The rest of the day was spent trying to find lobster (we were ultimately unsuccessful… poor Lenny wouldn’t be able to live vicariously through us for that particular experience), swimming, and laying about. Several times, we had to politely refuse the Wayuu women who came into our huts, selling their hand-woven baskets and bracelets. They would set these wares on top of us as we laid in our hammocks, and then would snatch them up and leave, grimacing, after we had repeatedly said no. We felt bad, but it would have been impossible to buy something from everybody… it seemed a hard life, scraping by on the sales of just a basket or bracelet a day.

The ocean on that side of the peninsula wasn’t very inviting… Craig surmised that it was because of the lack of waves that the water remained so murky. It could also be due to everybody’s using the ocean as their personal sewage system. The night before, I saw the man take a pan of bloody water (from preparing our dinner) and throw it into the sea. Afterwards, he laid down in it and floated around before getting up, washing himself off (with same water) and hauling himself back to the shack.

We were told that the only transport back to Uribia would leave Cabo at 4:00 in the morning. I slept fitfully that night, and woke up several times worried that we’d missed the truck. I had little desire to remain in Cabo for any remaining time–two nights in a hammock in the open air had started to give me a cold, despite how warm it was. Not to worry, we woke up and hurriedly dressed just in time for the truck, which came barreling down the main street, honking its horn into the still, dark night.

After we climbed aboard, the truck drove to the other end of the town and we waited awhile for an Argentine couple to pack up their tent on the beach. We had seen them arrive the evening before and were a bit perplexed–it seemed they were leaving less than 12 hours after arriving. It was a long way to go for an uncomfortable night camping on the beach.

We crowded in and set off. My rear end was completely numb by the time we bounced to yet another stop to pick up more Wayuu people and their goods. This particular stop was memorable because we also picked up a goat. He had been tied to the back of a bicycle, and we had watched, fascinated, as a man untied him and set him on the ground. His legs had all been twined together, and he had been muzzled as well. They set him on the bed of the truck as we all watched, fascinated. It made several, sad, bleating noises and then lay quivering, the whites of its eyes showing.

It was at this point that I noticed the Argentine girl was markedly refusing to look at the goat. Then I realized she was crying. What was going on? Was she a member of PETA? A strict vegan? She couldn’t even look at an animal that was destined to be eaten? Or maybe, as evidenced by their extremely short stay, she’d just been having a terribly shit time and the poor, miserable goat was the last straw. Goodness knows I’ve had several such breakdowns myself–I sympathized with her and the goat. Neither seemed to be having a very good time.

The goat, and an example of the colorful mumus the Wayuu women wear.

When my butt seemed like it was finally going to succumb to the pounding of the hard seats and remain flat forever, we reached the crossroads and switched to a bus that just happened to be sitting there already, perfectly timed. Once again, transportation in South America came through for us. We settled into the air-conditioned luxury and they started playing one of the best bus movies I’ve ever seen: “Escape Plan” with Sylvester Stallone AND Arnold Schwarzenneger. Talk about a killer combination. A mindless couple of hours later, we were back in Santa Marta, coddled by our hostel’s amazing staff.

It was an interesting experience and the most rustic and basic one we’ve had on this trip so far. I once visited family in jungle of Hainan Island, China, who lived similarly; without running water or constant electricity. But they, at least, had a farm and a sustainable way of life. Cabo, in the middle of the desert, didn’t seem like it had as much going for it. A dusty little place, recalling scenes from ghost towns or western movies, it was, at least, a “new experience”.

Melting Down in Cartagena

I am, unfortunately, one of that annoying breed of persons who likes to state the obvious over and over again. In Cartagena, this meant that about every five minutes, I would turn to Craig and exclaim, “It’s SO hot!” I’m sure this started to get on his nerves, but he was either too kind or too overheated to ask me to shut up.

Cartagena’s temperatures hovered around 90 degrees F, and the humidity stayed at about 80%. This kind of heat is totally opposite from the dry, desert heat that I grew up with in Southern California and can tolerate with lots of air-conditioning. The last time I felt heat with this level of humidity was on a short trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where I recall the phrase “I’m sweating balls” being used quite frequently. To say that we were unprepared for the heat is an understatement. As soon as we stepped off the plane, the heat just seemed to wrap us in a moist brain-numbing haze, and as our hostel was not air-conditioned, there was no escaping it.

Craig already mentioned our disastrous attempt at finding Playa Blanca, a fruitless and exhausting endeavor. The funny thing is that when we got back on the bus and Craig was seething with rage and feelings of impotence, I was feeling pretty okay with it all. I’ve had a lot of meltdowns on this trip, but they mostly happen when I’m confronted by a lack comfort. While sitting for three hours on that bus was not exactly comfortable, long, bumpy bus rides are about as common as mosquitoes down here, and I’ve gotten so used to them that I usually end up falling asleep. At one point on our way there, I woke up to some mild commotion and Craig saying, “We almost crashed into that other bus!”–to which I promptly nodded off again. Near crashes have also become somewhat commonplace.

No, the bus ride didn’t get to me, and neither did the giant torrential rainfall that we drove right into. The turning point also wasn’t having to wade through shin-deep murky water with who-knows-what floating around in it. (Dog shit? Human piss? I tried not to think about it.) I could endure all that with some measure of equanimity… it was only as we were sloshing our way to the Juan Valdez Cafe and I lost Craig for a minute (he had stopped to take a picture and had shouted at me to wait but I never heard him), that my own mental stability started to decline.

The picture that put a chink in my mental armor.

I don’t know if there’s anything worse than being unknowingly separated in a foreign country. It’s a scary feeling, full of panic and anger and consternation. Where is he? Why is he not here? What should I do now? Craig showed up after only a minute had passed, but I was already a bundle of nerves and fear.

“Where the hell were you? Didn’t we say we were going to Juan Valdez?” I hissed, despite my relief at seeing him again.

“Sorry, sorry, I was taking a picture! I yelled at you, but I don’t think you heard me,” Craig replied contritely. A good, diplomatic answer. I couldn’t remain angry, but my energy was gone. Once the rain stopped, all I wanted to do was just go back to the hostel. It wasn’t a great prospect, since it would be as hot and steamy as the rest of Cartagena after the rainstorm, but it was somewhere to rest for awhile and gain our bearings.

Several hours of mindless internet later, I felt renewed enough to tell Craig I thought I’d be okay with going into the walled Centro and walking around. The night air was cooler and the evening was tranquil. We bought some beers and strolled through the cobblestone streets, admiring the colonial architecture and how it was almost like we’d just stepped into Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. All the restaurants looked expensive and the buildings were kept in much better shape than in the rest of the city, spic and span for the hordes of tourists. In that strange, glitzy bubble, filled with horse-drawn carriages and gussied-up club-goers, I felt like I’d made my peace with Cartagena.

Ice cream makes everything better.

Cartagena’s Centro neighborhood at night.

We still decided to leave the city the next day. There’s only so much heat and humidity you can take before you start to crave de-humidified air. But our parting experiences with Cartagena, such an iconic Colombian city, had improved. We are contemplating going back someday, but we’ll be especially careful to avoid both the rainy season, and hostels without air-conditioning!

A horrible, no good, very bad day in Cartagena

It probably started with a pretty uncomfortable night, actually. The humidity here is like a blanket that is wrapped around you too tight; your skin feels like it can’t breath properly. And there are mosquitoes. Stealthy, fast and tiny coastal mosquitoes. After sleeping fitfully and waking up with bites, we reluctantly started our day. What’s the best way to appreciate the Caribbean? Head for a beach! We were recommended Playa Blanca, so we did some errands (sweating through them) and boarded a bus headed out that way.

The hostel staff assured us that a moto from the bus stop to the beach would run no more than $4,000 COP each, so it was a bit of a shock when the 6 guys circling around us, trying to get us to choose their moto, were quoting us more than two times that amount. I never expect the price to be what someone has told us it should be, but more than 2 times wasn’t what we were prepared to pay… After talking it over for about ten minutes, we reluctantly decided to turn around. It was probably one of the worst bus rides I can remember just to get out to that point (1.5 hours of bumpiness and going in circles), so the decision wasn’t made lightly. I felt defeated and pretty angry. Should we have blown the budget? Maybe, but the splurge on a flight from Medellin was still fresh in my mind.

On the way back to the city center it started to rain. Then it started to rain very, very hard. The streets became little rivers, with motorcyclists abandoning their rides at the curb and taking shelter in nearby businesses. Everyone started taking cover, and traffic ground to a halt. We stared out the windows of the bus with amazement, then a little bit of annoyance, and finally hopelessness. We were stuck in a river of water and cars. Rain started to come through the roof and the closed windows, causing most people to abandon the window seats.

IMG_3452.JPG

Several hours after starting out, we were back in the Getsemaní neighborhood, jumping out the back door of the bus into a couple inches of water, then wading ankle deep to cross the street. We took shelter in a Juan Valdes coffee shop for another hour, and then slowly made our way back to our accommodation.

Cartagena is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in South America. I have seen some glimpses of that, and I was so excited to walk around with a camera in hand.. I’m fighting the urge to run away as soon as possible – so that we can try our luck somewhere else on the Caribbean coast.

A Study in Contrasts

We loved Medellin so much that we stayed for nine days, our longest stay that didn’t involve volunteering. Our hostel, the Palm Tree, was a magical, calm oasis in the middle of the bustling city–a perfect place to go back to after a busy day sightseeing. The staff was so kind and welcoming, and since most of them spoke very little English, we got to practice our Spanish with them all the time. On TripAdvisor, their reviews were mixed because some guests complained about their lack of English-speaking skills, because they apparently didn’t come to South America expecting to have to speak any Spanish at all. I have no words.

A Botero statue. The artist was renowned for his work, which used disproportionate sizing to emphasize his message.

It was also amazing fun to hang out with our old Colca Canyon friend Ahmed and hear his expanding theories about “freeing yourself from the tyranny of the mind!“, words that have become his catchphrase lately. It’s quite possible that Ahmed is becoming a hippie. He had also acquired a temporary girlfriend, Elizabeth, a very nice girl from Olympia, WA, who was studying Spanish and salsa dancing in Medellin. She had already been in the city for one and a half years, and I asked her once if she grew tired of the stares, as she was a tall, blonde, white girl. She answered that she had gotten used to it. I don’t know if I could, though. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but the stares just make me so uncomfortable.

Elizabeth, me, and Linda, a fellow hosteler (and Asian–a rare find in backpacker world, although more common in Colombia) from Australia. The screen on Linda’s camera was broken, so all of her pictures turned out a little askew…

One night, after a match in which Atlético Nacional, Medellin’s most popular football team, lost to a Paraguayan team, Ahmed, Elizabeth, Craig, and I wandered into a 24-hour bakery. It was a popular stop among the walking mariachi band members that play on a nearby street in the evenings. We ordered a flan to share and sat in the outdoor patio, finishing the beers that we had brought and taking in all the colorful costumes. There were also a lot of Nacional fans, and one particularly drunk one came stumbling up to our table, holding out his hand.

“Money,” he said in his heavily accented English. “For… go to… my house!” he finished, quite pleased with himself. We politely said no, and although he fist-bumped all of us, his last words were, “Estoy con Pablo Escobar,” which we weren’t sure how to take. Was it some kind of harmless threat? Just a reference to his personal affiliation with drugs? At any rate, this kind of in-your-face interaction fortunately wasn’t common, but the stares were, and they all contrived to make me feel out-of-place. The life of a traveler, I guess. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.

But for all the stares and aggressive panhandlers, there were many more friendly faces and paisas who went out of their way to ask us if we needed directions or help, were quick to say hi and shake our hands, and just made us feel welcome in general. I would gladly endure a few stares if that meant that all of our stays would be as fun and comfortable as it was in Medellin.

Ahmed teaching Craig how to salsa. Next year, you’ll see them on X-Factor.

Craig putting the moves on me. Not sure if it was the alcoholic haze or if Ahmed had done a great job in the five minutes of teaching, but we’re both amenable to learning more if we can find some cheap lessons.

Today, we took a short bus to Guatape, a quaint town about an hour and a half from Medellin. The central plaza reminds us a lot of Salento, with its colorfully painted buildings, but it’s also situated on the shore of a beautiful man-made lake (the dam provides power to 60% of Colombia, according to some fellow travelers). We expected a weekend that would be at least as calm and peaceful as our stay in Medellin, filled with scenic hikes and kayaking. So it was with some surprise and not a little displeasure that we arrived to our hostel to find it overrun with shirtless Australian volunteers blasting rap music in the living area, which all the rooms bordered.

Our room is spacious and our private bathroom (!!) is super clean and modern, but the noise just doesn’t stop. They’re currently watching a movie with an extraordinarily high gunshot rate, at maximum volume. Perhaps they’ve all gone deaf and can’t hear anything below a gazillion decibels anymore? It’s funny that in huge, busy Medellin, we were able to relax and find peace in our hostel, but here in tiny Guatape, our tranquil weekend eludes us. Ah well, if travel has taught us anything, it’s never to be surprised by anything, least of all a noisy hostel!

Fun times in Medellin. I miss it already. But we can’t stay there forever… onward and upwards to the Caribbean!