The "Oh sh**, I traveled to 10 countries in 2014" Review- Part I (#1 Colombia & #2 Ecuador)
I started writing this intro in December :-)
I’m writing on a plane en route to my final travel destination of 2014. Until I did a count this morning, I hadn’t even realized that this will be the 10th foreign country I’ve visited this year. Makes me feel like LL Cool J when he came out with his 10th album. So this trip to Mexico will be regarded as "10". These excursions are always filled with so much excitement, anxiety, messiness, beauty, discoveries and fails that I get so caught up in experiencing them all that I don’t document them in the manner that I always want to. So I’m going to attempt to really bring you all into what these journeys are truly like this time around with "10." But before I do, I want to provide a proper review of insights, special moments and maybe some bizarre shit from this year’s excursions to these 10 countries on 4 continents.
Okay, now back to the present. As mentioned in the Mexico posts (I actually did like I said I was going to do! Go me!), I’m still deciding how to buckle down and finish the travel memoir I started writing while I was living Chile in 2013. But since it’s still on the table, there are some juicier, messier, dirtier, and/or just more personal parts that I’m gonna save for the book. And when one such episode or detail comes up I’m gonna drop in a “LIBRO!” so you know.
#1 Colombia (January-May 2014)
Colombia has now become the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time outside of the United States. And when 2014 began I was in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. January 1, 2014 marked the second half of my trip, having arrived the previous August (2013) on a Fulbright award to conduct my 9-month dissertation research. My girl whom I’d met in Cartagena in 2012 (and with whom I rolled to Mexico), Salma, and I had decided to get outta Cartagena to begin the new year in some place a little greener and with fewer people that we didn’t want to see. There was a whooole lot going on in Cartagena at the time. LIBRO. We’d heard a lot about Palomino and went to meet the male member of our parche (crew), Jhonatan, who'd arrived earlier. It took us forever to get to the bus station on the outskirts of Cartagena by bus and then we had to wait forever for another bus out of the city. But we ended up in Palomino late on December 30th with the intention of staying with a woman Salma had met in Cartagena. I’m going fast forward through some rather interesting details of our night and say LIBRO.
Come morning time Salma and I were still on the fence about whether to stay or leave Palomino. We hadn’t bathed and after an encounter that reminded me that sometimes there’s no running away from shitty situations, we resolved to get the hell outta there. The hours were wasting away fast as we tried to figure out what to do and because it was New Year’s eve I wanted us to decide quickly so as to be situated come 11:59pm. We wandered about making phone calls and did end up in beautiful place where the river met the ocean. We then got our hustle on with Jhonatan, hopped on a bus and later the back of a truck.
We worked our way up the mountain to the town portion of Minca to meet Ana Maria who owned Finca La Semilla (The Seed Farm) further up the mountains. We waited for her for hours at a café, just happy to have made it that far at the last minute. Ana Maria’s finca was too far to go to that night and we were supposed to stay in the house of one of her friends who was away. But of course she couldn’t find the keys. The day turned to night and shit got ridiculous. We had nowhere to stay. Folks were charging a grip to stay in a sleeping bag on their property and use the cold water showers basically outdoors (mind you, it’s a good 45-50 degrees up in this mountain at this hour). Things were not looking good for the crew and my face showed how over it I was. Salma and I wandered to a hotel and they offered to let us pay way too much to share a twin bed. It just so happened that I left my wallet with my backback with Jhonatan so we couldn't pay right there. As we walked back I said, “maybe something amazing happened while we were gone.” And it did! Jhonatan had found a spot with a bunk bed and a double and kinda warm water! You would’ve thought the shit was the Waldorff at that point to us. We bathed, went to eat, drink and ended up at a woman’s house in town partaking in local festivities “of the earth.” We played instruments, danced and laughed so hard we almost died climbing up the trail to the few places we visited. It was one of the best New Year’s I’d ever had and I don’t even know why. There was a freeness. We didn’t care what we looked like. The jokes were plentiful and the company was warm.
The next day we slowly but surely got ourselves up.
And had to make our way up the mountain. We took motos at first.
But then it got to the point where you have to hike up. The thing to understand about Minca too is that most places are without electricity. Ya go for the truly rustic experience. There are no grocery stores. So you've got to bring pretty much all the food you want to eat for your time there. Hence this grocery bag in my hand along with an overpacked bag. Smh.
We had a special time up at the finca. Life sans electricity is a really interesting way of being. We built a fire but for all intents and purposes once that sun went down our day was over. At the finca we did yoga, climbed a waterfall, cooked and just enjoyed ourselves.
But we did also learn the importance about coming fully prepared when you make those kinds of excursions out to the middle of nowhere. Pack your meds. LIBRO. Smh.
Living in the center of Cartagena can honestly get pretty boring. Being by the beach and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture definitely makes for some scenic moments but on a regular basis there’s not enough going on to sustain my attention. What is a perk of living there are the various festivals that come up: the Mercado Cultural (Jan.), Bienal Art Festival, FICCI, Hay Literary Festival. Most of these seem like opportunities for the elite from around the country to get together and be “cultured”, but I too did appreciate the opportunity to partake in the artsy activities. They sometimes provided insights for the dissertation research I was conducting, which only really kicked into high gear in January (in spite of having arrived in August). I'm sort of glossing over sooo much of Cartagena but I write about it soooo much in my academic work that I feel myself not wanting to write about it here. But in due time, definitely more to come.
Palenque de San Basilio (February 2, 2014)
I’d long wanted to travel to Palenque de San Basilio, the village established by formerly enslaved Africans who had fled bondage and started a community there during colonial times. During my second trip to Cartagena I went to a program at the Universidad de Cartagena and learned more about the Palenque language, declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.
Merly Beltrán Vargas became a friend while in Cartagena and is the founder of Tu Cultura. She’s been organizing tours to Palenque for some time now and when she called me up saying she had a spot on a her tour leaving nice and early one morning in February, I jumped at the opportunity. As a Cartagenera, Merly has a love and appreciation for the richness of the culture and people of those on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. She has an awareness of the value of this sacred place, as well as a history of working with the people there. I HIGHLY suggest if you are interested in visiting Palenque you contact her at email@example.com in advance. Her organisation promotes sustainable tourism and part of this is not having huge groups travel to the community so plan ahead to get a spot. Here’s a link to what I wrote shortly after my experience and of course, more pics and vid clips!
Barranquilla Carnaval (Feb-March 2014)
The whole Barranquilla thing was nothing like I anticipated. There were far fewer people. Very consistent color schemes of red, yellow, orange, and blue. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio or Trinidad. It was distinctly Colombian. There was an ABUNDANCE of that Negrita Puloy costume.
Loads of the Marimonda figure (what we call “penis face”), far more than during Cartagena Independence festivals in November.
Far fewer afro wigs but many more men painted black to represent Africans and boys in the street painted black and asking for money. Lots of spears and animal prints. Every poster was either Negrita Puloy, El Son de Negro, the Marimonda or the bull. The bull was the only thing that I wasn't really offended by and that’s only because I don’t know the history. If it involves murdering and torturing the bull then I’m offended by that one too.
I thought a lot about what I’d learned in my interviews in Cartagena where people spoke of the relationship between Cartagena and Barranquilla. The former being the more “Black city.” And I thought about someone from Quibdó telling me that the Black face practice didn’t go down in festivals on Colombia’s pacific coast. (This is really a big part of my future work)
We couldn’t even see the main parade because they’d built these bleachers so that only people who paid could get in to see it. It was so blatantly exclusionary. We saw more of it on the television back at the hotel.
I spoke with folks who, like us, were basically just listening to the parade outside of the bleachers and they said that the more “popular” parade was in another part of town. We made our way over to that and got to actually see a parade.
That night we took part in some street party where I ran into other expats I knew and got properly foamed and powdered as is apparently the tradition.
All of these festivals were a welcomed distraction from all the dude messiness. Oh man. But the reality is that the man situation was a welcomed distraction from the work. No matter how much I said I was going to avoid problems by focusing on the project and platonic friends, somehow they just kept calling me. And what happened? Pookie went runnin’. My romantic relationships from this time in Colombia are definitely strictly LIBRO material but I will say they made for rich, exhilarating and sometimes quite painful life experiences and a key element in Carmen Jones Sandiego tales.
#2 Ecuador (March 2014)
I had plans to visit two countries I hadn’t been to in Latin America while living in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The political climate got a bit too difficult for me to make it to Venezuela but in March I made my way to Ecuador for 6 days. I Skyped with someone from www.myecuadortrip.com and he provided me with great info about the ins and outs of traveling around Ecuador. It really put me at ease. I got to my hostel, Blue House Hostel, in Quito on a Friday and was a bit obsessed with the idea of trying to get to Cusco to visit a friend I’d met there so that I could make up for the Machu Picchu trip I’d missed out on the year before. But in the end the tickets were just bananas for such a short time and distance. I was in a dorm and there was a girl in there that was knocked out when I arrived. I just wasn’t feeling the environment at the hostel. I felt really alone and unsure of how exactly I was going to work the trip. My driver from the airport provided me some options that would get me around some parts of Ecuador but at a pretty penny. I couldn’t make it all the way to the Afro center of Ecuador, Esmeraldas, but he did mention that there was another town with a large Afro-descendant population that was somewhat closer. When I awoke I decided I’d just hit up the sites in the historic center and figure it out. The sleeping girl awoke, a 22-year-old girl from Switzerland named Livia (Hey Liv!). We started chatting and just like that I had a traveling companion for the rest of the trip. And this is one of the beautiful things about taking excursions, especially solo; you end up befriending people whom you would likely never come in contact with and if you did you probably wouldn’t think there was much to bond you. But being out of your own regular space is enough to unite total strangers. And off me and Livia went!
Basílica del Voto Nacional
After leaving the Historic Center of Quito we jumped in a cab and headed to the center of the planet Earth, because why the hell not, right?
There are two different sites down the road from one another both claiming to be the official middle of the world. We went with Museo de Sitio Inti Ñan which the folks I spoke to from Ecuador said is legit. Plus they had cute little experiments.
The next day we headed out to Otavalo via multiple buses. It’s about 70 miles away and just a really chill Indigenous town with an awesome market that's really jumping on the weekends. I bought some great textiles and original artwork.
We met up with a woman Livia had met in another part of Ecuador, Pil from Copenhagen, Denmark. The next day we had a nice little hike out to the waterfalls.
Livia, Pil and I headed back to Quito the next day. Livia and my original hostel, Blue House Quito, had two sites and the three of us went back to the second one but it was just awful. We were staying in a dorm that wreaked of mold and when I looked up at the wooden planks above my head from the bottom bunk I literally saw all the mold. Ilk. The folks working there tried to be accommodating but i wasn't 'bout that dying from spores life. The next day Pil left to head home and Livia and I went to BoutiQuito Design Hostel, which was slightly more money and had great reviews. But it was much further out from the center. But at that point Livia and I had figured out how to navigate public transpo and cabs were cheap enough that we were willing to sacrifice convenience for comfort. And BoutiQuito Design Hostel was damn fabulous (just don't get the breakfast, it seems like a waste of $).
And it’s at BoutiQuito Design Hostel that we met our next travel buddy, Rishan. We all spent the next two days traveling around Quito, eating and watching movies in the hostel. And Livia just happened to be leaving out of Ecuador on the same day, around the same time, and near the same gate. So we were able to share a cab back to the airport and see one another off. It was such a solo-traveller’s win!
Back to Colombia (March-May 2014)
I returned to Cartagena from Quito and everything was a whirlwind. I was doing everything I’d been doing for the 7 months prior but at an accelerated pace. I of course had to get my arts festivals on.
Had to party and bullshit with folks. (Don't worry. No lovely New Zealanders were harmed in the making of this picture)
I, of course, had to continue my work as an ethnographer, documenting happenings in the community and grinding on these interviews, reminding myself on the daily that that's why I was actually in Cartagena.
Oh and I got painted!
Bogotá, Colombia (April 26-28, 2014)
I ran outta Cartagena one weekend in April to make my final presentation before Fulbright staff and my fellow Fulbright US student award winners in Colombia. I had skipped the orientation for the awardees in Bogotá the previous July because I wasn’t ready to go back to Colombia from NY and I’d already been there twice before. This meant that everyone had gotten to know one another before moving on to their respective cities 8 months earlier so I was the new jack to the crew. I gave the presentation on my work.
HU alums & Fulbright awardees!
Then it was time to enjoy Bogotá for a few days. I hadn't been there since my first trip to Colombia in 2011 and while I’m not a fan of the weather, or shit the crime, I'm a big fan of big cities, the diversity, the energy, all the different shit there is to get into. I definitely enjoyed this visit to Bogotá. LIBRO!
Back to Cartagena...
I hit the ground running and got back on my work grind. One day I was having a slow start and the universe was on my side because like I somehow often do, I ran smack into the start of a protest. This one was with street vendors contesting a public space ordinance that would put them out of work. Me being me, I rolled with them. This has also become another major part of my dissertation project. I have video footage that I will eventually add here, but for now here are pics I captured from the event.
And this is what a protest around Cartagena at high noon leaves you looking like.
A few days later I had to give my final presentation (in Spanish) at Unitecnológica, one of the universities that housed me during my stay.
I would provide you with all the great pics since I had my friend there holding my digital SLR. But here goes the photographer for the university, “Oh don’t worry about taking any! I’ll send you all the pics!” This dude sends ONLY these pics.
I was punked in classic Cartagena fashion. Smh.
So carrying on, the thing about living anywhere is that you often take for granted things people visit on short jaunts. So in my last few weeks in Cartagena I also decided to do a few things I’d just never done. For example hit up the Gold, Inquisition and San Pedro Claver Museums.
Then there was the Botanical Gardens further out in Turbaco (El Jardín Botánico Guillermo Piñeres).
I still had my routine. I got my yoga and Zumba on. The last ones are Zumba pics in La Plaza de la Trinidad from 2012 but they capture the spirit and energy that the woooonderful instructor Ervelyne Bernard evokes. I just adore her. Seriously, if you’re in Cartagena you have to check out the Zumba studio she started, Activao Ztudio Fitness. She and Sarita are awesome instructors!
I made time for friends and laughter.
Got in more local art and culture.
Of course I continued to hit up the beach every weekend.
I gave one more presentation to students from the Universidad de Cartagena. I really regret not spending more time with the students. I forgot how much I love working with young, eager students of color. Like it really changes my outlook on life. They were soooo excited to talk to me for over an hour after my presentation. If I could go back in time I would’ve been a little more relaxed about getting my research done and made time to have a weekly seminar with students interested in sociological issues and the research process. Next time.
I said goodbye to the wonderful people whom I shared office space, time and ideas with at the Universidad de Cartagena and Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar.
I sold off my desk and bicycle. (sniffle, sniffle, BICIIIIIIIIIII!)
And then it was time for my despedida (farewell party)!
I was set to fly out of Cartagena exactly 9 months from the day I arrived, on May 14, 2014. But ya know, sometimes things get interesting…and you miss your plane…and you stay in Cartagena for another night. LIBRO!
Now that I’m done with this reflection I’m reminded of their importance. This one represents just the last half my experience in Colombia. And I didn’t realize how rich it was. There’s so much more that took place before this. It's clear I’m going to have to write about it. I forgot how many people I was actively engaged with on a regular basis. How many things that were completely new to me at first became a part of my regular life. In spite of all the frustrations, how much I learned from living in Cartagena for 9 months. I'm happy that that moment is over but boy was it a formative moment! ¡Hasta luego, La Fantastica!