Friday, February 26, 2016

Street Party in Getsemani

Friday, February 26, 2016

Imagine this: In front of a magnificently lit 11th century church where a mass is being held, a throng of people --tourists of all ages and nationalities, locals, vendors, couples, entire families—are dancing cumbia and eating arepas, chatting with each other and wandering around.  On the very steps of the church sits a group of people drinking Aguila beer who look as though they do the same thing every single night.  Kids are running around holding onto the strings of vividly colored balloons floating behind them.  Spread out on the ground beside some benches is an assortment of handmade accessories being sold by young people wearing dreadlocks and bohemian clothes.  Surrounding the area are food stalls selling meat and vegetable platters, grilled chorizos, burgers, hotdogs, and beverages. 

A street party in Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia
It was by chance that we discovered this astonishing street party a couple of blocks from our hostel on a warm Tuesday night. The church is called Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad located at Plaza de La Trinidad in Getsemani, a neighborhood within the walls of the historic center of Cartagena.  During daytime, the square was a pretty quiet place where we enjoyed eating mangoes while figuring out how to use the free public wifi. We didn’t know that that sleepy plaza comes alive every night and transforms into something that feels festive, open, and free-spirited—the very same atmosphere that permeates the entire city.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Thinning of the Substance

Monday, February 22, 2016

…there are more and more people in the world who have had to leave, been driven from, a country, the valley, the city they call home, because of war, plague, earthquake, famine. At last they return, but these places may not be there, they have been destroyed or eroded; for if at first glance, like a child’s recognition of its mother’s face when she has been absent too long, everything is as it was, then slowly it has to be seen that things are not the same, there are gaps and holes or a thinning of the substance, as if a light that suffused the loved street or valley has drained away. Quite soon the people who have known one valley or town all their lives will be the rare ones, and there are even those who speculate how humanity will have to leave the planet with plans to return after an interval to allow it to regenerate itself, like a sick or poisoned organism…

~ Doris Lessing, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, 1992

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Going Off Grid in Santa Marta, Colombia

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The midmorning heat at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Santa Marta was almost unbearable. Pico, the guy who was supposed to pick us up from the airport, arrived in his beat up Toyota an hour late. With a big, lazy grin on his face, he was holding up a crumpled paper with my name on it. That set the tone for our entire trip to South America: Being late is the norm and being laid-back is the way of life.

We then drove an hour and a half to our ecolodge along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  Upon arrival we were told by the manager that there won’t be any electricity from 5 am to 5 pm for the length of our stay due to some “technical issues” in the solar panels they’re using. I knew that the lodge doesn’t have wifi, but the lack of electricity is something I did not expect.  


At first we balked at the idea of spending several days in a Thoreauvian fashion, but we got used to it and later on even embraced it. In Santa Marta, we were stripped to the bare essentials: no phones, no television, no hot showers, no Internet connection, no air conditioning, and no room service. All we had—and all we needed—was the placidity and stillness of that palm tree covered beach away from the ceaseless tumult of city life and each other. Except for that day hike to the marvelous Tayrona National Park, our days were wrapped in uneventful simplicity. Lying on those plastic lounge chairs facing the shore, we slept the afternoons away. We talked, read books, played cards, and walked along the beach. 

Divested of modern luxuries, we saw beauty in the mundane. The things that we usually take for granted beckoned our prolonged attention:  The smell of fresh coffee wafting through the window screen early in the morning; the sight of damp swimsuits left to dry over the back of a chair looking as if they haven’t recovered from the fun they had the past day; the sound of conversations in Spanish, half of which I did not understand; the taste of freshly cooked patacones (twice fried plantain slices) served with ever meal; the texture of sand and crushed shells under my feet and the coolness of the waves washing over my legs.  We were content simply to be in that place at that time.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sense of Discovery

Monday, February 15, 2016

There was a time when I wanted to see only wild places, and was reluctant to go to a place that had been written about extensively. But then—it is so funny about travel—I would go to a place that everyone had been written about and it was as though I was seeing something entirely new…. It made the going good because I was unprepared for what I saw. That was always the best part of travel, the sense of discovery. When there was none and it was all predictable I wanted to go home.

~ Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, 1995

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

At La Candelaria, Bogota

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

That first night in Bogota, I was terrified to step out of the hostel.  Who wouldn’t be if a poker-faced hostel staff gives you instructions like “Please do not carry your passport or debit/credit cards on you. Carry a copy of your passport with Colombia visa! Please do not receive food or drinks from strangers. Do not leave your drink unattended! Please do not carry jewelry, expensive cameras, electronic devices, etc. with you! Carry only as much cash as you need. Please do not use your phone or any other expensive objects on public streets or public buses! Inform yourself about the security; to know where you’re going, ask at the Reception or the Police! Only visit Monserrate on peak hours and come back before 3 pm! In emergency cases, you will hear a whistle. You must follow the instructions of the hostel’s staff.”? The many stay-away-this-place-is-dangerous horror stories I read from travel websites and guide books about La Candelaria in Bogota didn’t frighten me but the sheer number of exclamation points in those directions did.

Propelled by an excitement stronger than fear, we did go out that first night, yet nothing untoward disrupted our walk.  The faint streetlamps illuminating the pavements below where people nonchalantly sauntered past made us feel anything but unsafe. And it was the nippy December air, not muggers, which assaulted us, leaving us shivering with exhilaration. We walked on several blocks away from the hostel until we found a small cafe, which later became a favorite of ours. In that tiny piece of heaven, I can't help but wonder, "are we, indeed, in one of the “world’s most dangerous cities?"

Along Carrera 7 in La Candelaria Centro, Bogota, Colombia
We continued to explore the area on foot: southwest from the hostel toward the Botero Museum that houses Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures; then northwest to the library and art gallery in the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez and straight to the magnificent Plaza de Bolivar; then northeast to the supermarket Exito along the pedestrian zone Carrera 7 lined with shops, offices, restaurants, and street performers; onward to the university district teeming with students and  cafes;  then back to the hostel, passing 300-year old homes and buildings along narrow cobblestoned streets.  Like devotees going on a pilgrimage, we followed the same route several times each day for the next several days.

La Candelaria, Bogotá's historic center, became our base as we traveled across the country. It was the place we called home in Colombia.
 
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