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From Abundance to Arguments: How to React in Playa Blanca

diocebethWhile some places in the world are currently experiencing the cold of winter, December on the coast of Colombia continues to have sunny days and balmy nights, perfect for a weekend getaway. With the sheer beauty and natural abundance found on Playa Blanca in Isla Barú, each visit to this white-sand, clear-water beach near Cartagena de Indias brings new adventure and discoveries, as well as a few lessons in people and life.

bazurto fish

Bazurto fish market

Getting There, Going Local

A late morning start on the bus from Centro to Barú meant passing Bazurto fish market at it’s peak hour, and outlying barrios Bosque and Ceballos, before arriving about an hour later in the puebla of Pasacaballos. The usual hustling moto taxistas swarmed the bus. One, named Edgar David, used a friendly, quieter approach, calmly offering a clean helmet and newer-model bike, as well as a recommendation for an overnight stay.

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Edgar David, moto taxista

Arriving to the parquedero, Edgar David led the way to his friends Wilfriedo and Ana’s hostal, La Locura del Pote, a structure typical of those that have sprung up on the beach in the last two years. The large, two-story wood building with a peaked thatched palm roof offering several private rooms and a balcony of hammocks loomed over a sizable restaurant. $15,000 COP secured a locker and hammock for the evening and, within minutes, the mask and tube were on, ready for snorkel heaven in the pool-like Caribbean seas.

photo ©Lattinchattin.com

typical giant hostel in Playa Blanca photo ©Lattinchattin.com

Snorkeling revealed a wide selection of fish including big, pillow-sized silver ones, bright blue and yellow flats, black and yellow striped, and schools of yellowy-orange mottled skin variety, as well as tumbled white coral, hollowed sea urchins and multicolored shells. Being among this natural beauty was like meditation, but, after a few hours, it was time to surface and catch the gorgeous sunset over the ocean, as open-front restaurants and cafés set up for the evening dinner hours.

la locura view

The view from the second floor of La Locura de Pote

Following a humble bucket shower and fresh change of clothes, seeking a tasty dinner was the evening’s one adventure, after an entire day of exploring the waters. Night fell quickly as dimly-lit establishments offering food and drink blasted reggae, reggaeton and champeta from oversized speakers powered by gas-fueled generators. After devouring a delicious pizza cooked in a wood oven and a few cold Aguilas, it was lights out: time to settle down for a night of swaying in a hammock.

Peru-EEUU-Co

Sunset friends from Peru, USA and Colombia. Photo © Juan Sanchez Moreyra

While the hammock was slightly stiff and salty smelling, the tranquil night breezes blew gently enough to eliminate the discomfort (and the scent). Waking to the sound of tropical birds whooping and anxious roosters crowing, the sun lit up the beach slowly, creeping over abundant palm trees and vine-laden brush.

mar de plata

Mar de Plata serves delicious pizzas and crepes!

Breakfast of Champions

A much-anticipated simple breakfast of aromatic tinto, golden brown buñuelos with quesillo and a chilled bag of carrot juice was just the fuel needed for another three hours of snorkeling along the beach. Before heading out to snorkel, several beachgoers paid witness to an argument that ensued between two weekend tourists and a hostal owner. The guests had paid for two nights and stayed one but decided to leave early, which prompted them to request a refund of the second night.

bunelo dog

Morning with buñelos and a beach dog

The owner responded he had explained the terms of cancellation and non-refundable inclusions before they paid. This argument, enhanced by a language barrier and cultural differences on the meaning of compromise, continued in circles for about half an hour. It seemed the more the tourist yelled, the more calm the owner became, simply taking in the comments about how he was a crook, and standing like a rock on his principle.

morning boats

Boats and the morning beach

If you’ve never encountered a person who is in need of money, living hand-to-mouth and depending on advance cash payments for purchasing business amenities, be prepared. You may see someone argue their point to infinity, interjecting innuendos and even scrambling details to guarantee confusion of the original agreement. With most situations, what matters most is how it ends.

perro arena

This little pup was worried the whole time

Decide on How to Be Happy

After involving a nearby business owner as a translator, the guests left very dissatisfied, and the owner with a tight grip on their (already spent) cash, minus about $10,000 COP that he reluctantly returned. The final declaration on this trouble in paradise from those watching? Stay clear and try not to interject. While “not getting involved” may seem cowardly or selfish from an outsider’s point of view, it is also wise advice in some processes of personal negotiation.

snorkel treasures

Treasure sample from Playa Blanca snorkeling

With the heated confrontation over, swimming and snorkeling among large dark-purple rocks dotted with spiny plants, feeling scaly coral catch on bare feet and narrowly mistaking a horseshoe crab for a discarded paper plate, it seemed like ocean had its own jabs and sharpness of two people disagreeing.

gratitude playa

Gratitude for this heaven, early morning on the coast of Colombia

While the afternoon ended on this weekend visit to Playa Blanca, there was a feeling that even the clear waters of paradise have their rough side. As everyone heads into the holidays —  a stressful time for some and, for others, simply more time to relax — there is a remembrance to practice what Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it, that matters.”


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Scuba Do: Learning to Dive in Cartagena de Indias

In case you haven’t heard, Colombia just received the Lonely Planet award as the number 2 country to visit in the world. Finally, this beautiful place is getting the props it deserves, and what better way to celebrate this declaration and also see the beauty of Colombia? Go below the surface with scuba diving.

New diver

Me as a brand new diver

Boasting a vastly diverse terrain, including an incredible coastline of brilliant blue ocean, white sand beaches, and coral reefs, as well as warm days and clear waters, Colombia is a diver’s paradise: a well-kept secret quickly becoming a must-see destination in the world of scuba diving. While it requires suitable training, special equipment and select terrain, diving is one of those activities that has the potential to make travel even more incredible.

Be gentle with beginners; they have great potential to be experts.”
Lailah Gifty Akita, Think Great: Be Great!

morning-theory

Morning theory class at Cartagena Divers

Impressed by their facilities and friendly reception during an initial inquiry, the courage and curiosity to commit to diving were unavoidable, and in October 2016, classes began with Cartagena Divers. Although Cartagena boasts several reputable dive centers, Cartagena Divers was selected for the three P’s: price, professionalism and presentation. First, theory was learned reading the PADI Open Water Diver manual, and watching a three-hour long video of information, like how to manage your buoyancy control device (BCD), how to decompress your ears, and what to do in case of an emergency.

Learnng about Diving

Learning theory and dive table reading at Cartagena Divers

Next came practice: day one of diving began with a 7:10 a.m. launch in lancha Hatchi I from Muelle Navas in Bocagrande. Gliding over glassy waters, we settled along the edges of Isla Barú after about 20 minutes. New divers were told to jump in and swim five laps around the boat.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Mahatma Gandhi

7:10 am dock Hatchi I

7:10 am dock time for Hatchi I

Dog paddle, breast stroke, back stroke, side stroke, each motion brought memories of days spent snorkeling as a four year old in the crystal waters of Antigua. As the fifth lap ended, a sense of gratitude was felt for wonderful parents who encouraged swimming at an early age.

Ready to swim 5 laps? Why yes!

Ready to swim 5 laps? Why yes!

After the swim, divers joined Divemasters Daniel and Honor back on the boat, where they gave expert details about how to attach a BCD to a tank and adjust the air valve, as well as how to attach the equipment and manage each piece. Within minutes, the BCD was in place and inflated, and divers were making front-foot steps off the boat into the deep blue water.

Honor

Honor reviews tank safety with divers

It’s been said that the first plunge wearing an air cylinder is both exhilarating and intimidating, and that learning to breathe normally is sometimes a diver’s first personal lesson. While proper breathing initially may be achieved by simply floating face (mask) down in the water, nothing can prepare you for that feeling of having water all around you once you submerge.

Diving down

Diving down, swimming away from the rope

After a few minutes of floating, we made our initial dive by following a rope to the sea floor. While the urge to love diving from the very beginning existed, it was clear this would be an acquired adoration: everything underwater is so strange. You are surrounded by water, depending on a breathing device, aware of your being a visitor in the ocean world. Your body feels weightless and flexible, and you are among colorful corals and giant plants. Fish and other creatures notice you noticing them. While it is, to add a pun, breathtaking, it’s also a very unique experience.

Awesome video of Diving in Isla Barú featuring Henry Vergara

Still smiling after five laps

Exhausted but happy in this new adventure

Our group completed two 40-minute dives in the first day, swimming among beautiful tropical fish and over vast coral beds; the sea floor resembled a garden of submerged exotic vegetables: massive dark green plants waved like sea spinach, while large crinkly masses resembling purple kale and orange broccoli cascaded over jutting brown and caramel-colored reefs.

Working on my trim

Working on my trim

From a beginners’s point of view, Daniel was the perfect dive instructor: patient, encouraging, helpful, and a wonderful communicator both in and out of the water. Lessons learned onboard were managed with ease, including the vital hand signals, what to do if you lose air, and how to find proper trim and control buoyancy.

Although most of the Cartagena Divers courses may be completed in a short time, or while vacationing in Cartagena, living in the city meant the luxury of spacing out dives (practice) and exams (theory). The exams were not easy, but the information included in them is vital to having fun, safe dives.

Eyes up, cecking the depth

Eyes up, checking the depth

Perhaps the most difficult part of the exam was reading the dive table and calculating* the time you have to safely stay underwater. This fascinating, math-based tool proved to be worth learning, and, remarkably, a score of 84% was achieved on the first try. (*FYI, there are also wearable dive computers and online dive table calculators, both are really helpful).

Posing with a lap sandwich and boat rope

Posing with a lap sandwich and boat rope

After a successfulsecond dive, breathing more confidently meant exploring the unusual terrain with ease, and relaxing among the schools of colorful fishes. It was clear the learning had paid off, although it seems shipwreck diving is an acquired adventure for some.

OK I'll stick with fish and corals

OK no shipwrecks; I’ll stick with fish and corals

Swimming above and beside hulking masses of submerged, rusted steel sprinkled with barnacles, and numerous portals where fish darted in and out of darkness. proved to be a little too spooky for this beginner. Daniel showed concern for the hesitation to explore the wreck, which was met with reassurance that it wasn’t the dive, it was just the diver.

Temporary Card, Permanent Smile

Temporary Card, Permanent Smile

Receiving a PADI Open Water Diver certification feels like a great achievement in overcoming fears and doubts, a salt-watery step in the right direction and reason to travel more, explore new oceans, and experience all the greatness that lies ahead/below. Thanks so much, Cartagena Divers, especially Isabel, Alberto, Daniel, Angie, and Honor for helping this traveler mark another line off of life’s bucket list


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How to Find Non-Existent Change in Historic Santa Cruz de Mompox

Foto de Los Dos

Video still from Foto de Los Dos by Carlos Vives

In his iconic video for “La Foto de las Dos,” Latin Grammy Award winner Carlos Vives sings his passionate, hit song before a vast building in Mompox de Santa Cruz, a 1995 UNESCO Heritage site, while a heart-pulling couple fall in and out of love in this stunning municipio founded in 1537.

Hoy los fantasmas de tu amor me llaman, Hoy te quiero contar
Porque nunca te pude olvidar, Y recuerdo que tu amor conmigo*

(*Today nostalgia squeezes my soul. Today the ghosts of your love call me. I want to tell you today. Because I could never forget you)

Since arriving to Colombia in 2014, this “town trapped in time” has seemed intriguing, mysterious and charming; eventually, a visit would be mandatory. Consulting fellow volunteer and Colombia bestie Andrea, who visited a few years earlier, it became apparent Mompox was definitely worth the trip, even as she noted, “getting there is… interesting.”

 

Torcorama Bus

Pouring rain and bus exhaust

Following a weekend in Tolú and Coveñas, an early bus ($6,000 COP) in the pouring rain for less than an hour led to the first stop along this journey: Sincelejo, Sucre. Arriving to the bus terminal, a slick collectivo (shared taxi), driver offered transport to the second stop in Magangue, but actually drove less than a kilometer to another terminal, where other travelers waited under the aluminum roof of a vast, opened-sided garage.

About an hour later, trying to avoid asphyxiation from the exhaust of an idling diesel bus, some passengers finally asked the driver, “what are we waiting for?” He responded that the collectivo was “faltan uno,” or one person short of leaving with a full car. Tired of waiting, a woman darted from the garage to the bus stop next door, and returned with two passengers. The collectivo, finally full, ($10,000 COP each), headed out, with rain still falling at a treacherous pace from the dark skies.

La Bodega boat launch

La Bodega boat launch

Arriving an hour later in Mangague, the eighth largest metropolitan area in Colombia, the final stop was La Bodega, a boat terminal for the Magdelena River, where several services offered swift transport to Mompox ($9,000 COP) .

Speeding away from Mangague

Speeding away from Mangague

Launching from an interesting “port,” where huge stairs lead right to the water’s edge, tiny chalupas filled with families carrying babies, large bags of food and provisions, sped across the vast waters of the Magdalena, passing ferries transporting cattle, and strange swampy “gardens” of huge plants and lily pads. Half an hour later, the boats disembarked at a dirt-laden dock, where travelers were offered the option of a shared taxi or moto taxi ($10-13,000 COP pp) to surrounding towns.

Casa Agua y Sol

Casa Sol de Agua: café, restaurante, hotel, hostel y más!

After a quick check in at Casa Sol de Agua, the afternoon was perfect for a walk around the Centro, with its breathtaking historic houses and no less than five major churches. Passing the massive yellow and white Iglesia de la Maria Inmaculada in the Plaza de la Concepcíon, across from the main location for the video by Carlos Vives, the town really felt stopped in time, partly because this was a festivo Monday, and most places were closed.

Immaculada de Maria

Immaculada de Maria

One exception to the closed places was Heladeria la Libertad, a spacious corner tienda selling cold drinks and snacks, where a few locals sipped cervezas, played cards and shared gossip on the available tables.

Heladeria La Libertad

As luck would have it, stopping in the Heladeria la Libertad for refreshment included meeting the owner’s son, Manuel, who struck up a conversation in English, and agreed to a motorcycle ride through town to photograph the newly-added letter sign at the entrance to Mompox. Manuel had studied English in Bogotá and turned out to be an excellent conversationalist, offering tips of places to visit in his charming town.

MOMPOX entrance sign

MOMPOX entrance sign. Thanks for the photo, Manuel!

The late afternoon light brought a good opportunity to see the sights and photograph the town without the crowds or distractions of a normal weekday. As evening fell, the gothic tower of Iglesia Santa Barbara glowed like an ornate castle, while families walked together along the river: the perfect accompaniment to a parkside meal of empanadas, salad, juice and pan de bono.

Iglesia Santa Barbara

playing futbol under the glow of Iglesia Santa Barbara

Day 2 in Magical Mompox

Since it seemed the night view of Iglesia Santa Barbara wasn’t enough to see all of its beauty, in the early hours, another visit was prompted by the sound of roosters crowing.

Iglesia Santa Barbara in the morning

Iglesia Santa Barbara in the morning: Buenos dias, hermosa.

Walking before the gold and white facade, which beamed like the morning sun, it was easy to see why this church was included among the images selected for the Colombia is Magical Realism international campaign.

San Augustin, don't confuse it with Santa Barbara

San Augustin, don’t confuse it with Santa Barbara

After a leisurely breakfast of fresh maracuya juice, pan de queso, café tinto and mango slices with salt and lime, more walking around revealed the local and lively side to Mompox after a festivo Monday.

breakfast with books

breakfast with books and juice: write on

The Magdalena river flowed quickly on the malécon as schoolchildren bounded out of class just after noon next to the Iglesia San Francisco.

This girl was excited to tell her mom, waiting on a moto, about her grades

This girl was excited to tell her mom, waiting on a moto, about her stellar grades

Hungry for lunch, the friendly calls of “a la orden,” from the staff of Comedor Costeño brought a curiosity for this reputable eatery, where they were happy to accommodate a vegetarian diet. Diving into a generous portion of savory coconut rice, salad, quesillo (cheese) and patacón (with a fried egg on the side), plus a chilled Club Colombia ($8000 plate, $3000 cerveza + tip), street dogs watched diners devour their portions while the river flowed quickly beside the al fresco dining area.

Comedor Costeño

Comedor Costeño, gracias for your amistad y comida!

Following lunch, Manuel messaged he was up for some English conversation, and another visit to his mother’s tienda seemed a perfect way to pass the afternoon. As the strong Colombian sun made its way across the store’s enormous windows and massive doors, the conversation flowed from names of fruits and common dishes to country traditions and popular US music. It was a sheer blessing to meet a native Momposian who also spoke excellent English.

Manuel-iglesia

The model iglesia Manuel made in school

Eventually, Manuel left for his evening job, prompting a walk back to the hostel lit by the dusk sky and time to stop for a quick dinner, before going to bed early for the 6:00 am morning bus for Cartagena. With it’s six-and-a-half hour bumpy transport to another UNESCO Heritage Site in Colombia, the bus service is not known for any type of on-board meals.

with Manuel and his Mom

with Manuel and his Mom at Heladeria La Liberta

As the droves of locals headed to the plazas in front of the churches, Khalilieh Parrilla Bar offered tahini, pita, falafel and other reasonably-priced Arabian small plates.  Accompanied by a friendly waiter asking questions to practice his English at the riverside table, a surprise ending to the meal was presenting him with a $20,000 COP for which he did not have more than $10,000 change, so the $3,000 COP drink and service was “gratis.”

Parilla Mompox

Khalilieh Parrilla Bar photo ©2015 TripAdvisor

Walking back to Casa Sol de Agua, the night breezes lifted the chill from the Magdalena River into the air of Mompox. Strangely, it seemed relevant that the server at Khalilieh had no change – almost iconic or spooky in a metaphorical way. Like casually forfeiting the cost of the drink, such is life on a secluded, historic island, where, sometimes, change really is non-existent, both in money and in time.

Mompox mural

Mompox mural depicting the buildings, river… and a few smiling sloths

 


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Happiness is a Hammock in Colombia

In the busyness of a fulfilling life – from doing work we enjoy to celebrating monumental moments to maintaining healthy relationships, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves in our living is the luxury of a day off. If we can afford the time (and sometimes cost), there is often unbridled pleasure in just relaxing, recharging the human battery, and feeling grateful for the opportunity to do so.

palmfeet

“Find a culture where loafing is the order of the day and where they don’t understand our need to be constantly doing things. Find somewhere you can have a hammock holiday.” – Tom Hodgkinson, British writer b. 1968

The people of Colombia are considered to be some of the happiest in the world. Living here nearly three years, it’s become apparent that even the hardest-working person – from the avocado street vendors to the leaders of community organizations, will take a day off to savor their beautiful country and relajarse (such a lovely Spanish word!)

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Welcome (mocktail) to Colombia!

Nine reasons why Colombia is one of the world’s happiest countries

When your main focus is relaxation, nothing seems better than a day swinging in a hammock. Swaying along, sipping a coconut drink, listening to palm leaves rustle overhead in a cool Caribbean breeze. Ahhh…this is the life, and for many, real life. Chosen life. Life looked at through a snorkeling mask or $5.00 replica “designer” sunglasses bought on the beach. Life to love.

lanchas

Lanchas line up early in Bocagrande

A day trip to Hotel Palmarito Beach was the perfect blend of relaxation, fun and plenty of hammock time on a recent Sunday afternoon. Meeting friends in front of the Nuevo Hospital Bocagrande, a lancha from the hotel made the quick and easy trip across the sea, returning to the island of Tierra Bomba. Our group arrived to a large dock, where we watched local kids practicing backflips into the deep blue water.

richy-kd

Arriving with the always-happy Richy

Escorted by the cheerful boat staff to the main entrance, we received a delicious welcome “mocktail” of fresh juice before making our way to the shimmering pool next to the hotel, reachable by walking through a large grassy area where tall palm trees and colorful hammocks beckoned as they swayed in the breeze.

richy-pool

Poolside peeps

After an hour splashing and swimming in the crystal waters, our lunch arrived, served family-style at a large table. The most typical meal – seafood soup followed by fried fish, patacón, coconut rice and salad, with refreshing agua de panela – is almost prerequisite for a day at the beach in Colombia. Our group savored every bite, enhanced with fresh lime, and cleaned our plates before deciding a hammock would be the best way to digest this meal.

lunchtime-palmarito

Tasty fish lunch served family-style

Read this great blog post from VulnerableTraveler.com about Couchsurfing in Cartagena

Settling into a colorful, handwoven creation is like being hugged by everything that makes Colombia amazing. The sweet smell of soft fibers and tangy sea salt envelope your body as you drift off for your afternoon nap. Breathe deep, taking in some prahna, considered to be the vital force of both the individual body and the universe.

An optimist is a man who plants two acorns and buys a hammock. – Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, French military commander, 1889 – 1952

After about an hour, our party arose from our hammocks, feeling grateful there was still some time left in the day. We walked a few steps to the beachfront of Hotel Palmarito and enjoyed an awakening dip in the Caribbean sea, complete with a skyline view of Bocagrande. Briny, blue-green waters soothed our sun-kissed skin before we emerged, heading for one of several giant shaded beds on the sand to enjoy yet another tasty fruit drink.

richy-playa

Richy in the ocean, Bocagrande in the background

As the day came to an end and the boat staff rounded up our group, we thanked the owner of the hotel for this delightful experience on Tierra Bomba. Boarding our sturdy lancha, we reveled in seeing the dark clouds that narrowly missed our hammock oasis, leaving an after-downpour show, complete with a brilliant rainbow.

hamaca

A life to love.


Innovation + Inspiration at the 6th Biennial CLIL Symposium

CLIL Barranquilla

Header for the event on the CLIL Symposium website photo: ©CLIL Symposium

The 6th Biennial CLIL Symposium, hosted by Universidad de La Sabana, Pearson Colombia and University del Norte took place on the picturesque campus of UniNorte in Barranquilla the weekend of September 9th, 2016. The event kicked off with an opening speech from Pía Osorio, Director of the Instituto de Idiomas at UniNorte, followed by a keynote session from consultant and trainer Phil Ball. Following Ball’s impressive lecture on the three dimensions of content for assessment in CLIL, the day continued with informative presentations, which symposium participants selected from and attended at their leisure.

clil-philball

Teachers from Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias with Phil Ball

An inspiring presentation from Yudis Contreras Martínez, a Language Professor teaching English, Literature and Hispanic Culture at the University of Cartagena, highlighted her project from SUNY-Oneonta, where students interacted virtually to develop relationships with students in Colombia, as part of the international project with Kansai University utilizing communication and cultural connections through COIL (Collaborative, Online, International Program) blended activities.

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With the inspiring Yudis Contreras Martínez

Next, a lively CLIL Question and Answer Session from symposium keynote speaker and author David Marsh, involved many curiosities and inquiries from event participants, as well as dashes of humor about global learning procedures and practices. Despite the overall sense of joviality in the session, Marsh was able to convey several meaningful and focused aspects on the importance of understanding and applying CLIL for both trainers and learners.

clil-marsh-plane

David Marsh assists CLIL symposium guests in an activity. Photo: © CLIL Symposium

After a lengthy lunch break and second keynote session from Mary Schleppegrell on language and meaning across disciplinary cultures, an excellent presentation from UniNorte professor Trey Erwin about using CLIL as a method to teach international business students in Colombia how to write online business content, was rich with current trends in hashtags, keywords and phrases. Offering helpful information on to boost social media connections and get content noticed, as well as educating adult learners as part of the ongoing process, Erwin delivered some excellent, original ideas.

clil-trey-bizenglish

Twitter and Facebook for Business Posts with Trey Erwin

The first day of the symposium wrapped up nicely with cocktails and light hors d’oeuvres at Restaurante 1966, as slightly exhausted but clearly inspired educators and speakers mingled together, snapping photos and exchanging contact information.

clil-kd-leonis-mahid

Enjoying the Symposium with Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias teachers Leonis and Mahida

On day two of the 6th Biennial CLIL Symposium, participants were treated to more keynote speakers and breakout sessions, again selecting from a list of informative lectures on a variety of topics.

clil-tweet

While attendance on day two seemed a bit lower, with a shorter break for lunch and a typical coastal rainstorm drenching the UniNorte campus, the CLIL Symposium continued to deliver exceptional ideas for learning and teaching throughout the afternoon.

clil_siop

Deborah Short: “How to Integrate Academic Language Learning with Subject Area Topics”

A final presentation from Deborah Short addressed the question “What Can CLIL Learn from Sheltered Instruction Research?” while closing ceremony attendees listened intently, adding ideas to their notepads. As the event ended with final photos and goodbyes, the overall consensus showed most of those participating were grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the 2016 CLIL Symposium which, as overhead by one individual, was an innovative and inspirational success.

CLIL-dulces

Sweet treats from Agora and Students of Economics at UniNorte


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The Simplest Pleasure in Centro: Renting a Bike in Cartagena

If visiting the UNESCO World Heritage city Cartagena de Indias is in your near future, one simple pleasure — along with the sightseeing excursions, relaxing beach days and savoring the incredible flavors of the Colombian coast —  comes highly recommended from locals and tourists alike: rent a bike!

katedanainsta-bike

Instagram, August 29, 2016

A bicycle, in addition to being a great way to exercise during a visit to this 483 year-old city on the Caribbean sea, is a great way to get around, see more of real life and enjoy a sunny afternoon or breezy evening. While the beach is a popular choice for cruising, or the newly-developed Malécon near the airport for more lengthy riding and bike ramps, it’s suggested to start in Centro, the historic downtown area, and work your way out, venturing beyond the walled city.

bici-mojitos-kd

Colors and Cocktails, a definite thumbs up!

Bicycles in Cartagena can be rented easily and inexpensively, ranging in price by the hour from $5,000 to $20,000 COP (about $1.50 to $7.00 USD). Usually, the cost depends on your source and their degree of selection; bicycles range from standard, almost military-issue push bikes with squeaky tires and small, stiff seats, to newer (and more exclusive) beach cruisers or trek bikes, with knobby tires, comfortable seats, and convenient baskets.

kd-bici-basket

Read about the weekly Ciclovía, that closes the busy streets of Bogotá for bicycles

One location to try is near Parque de Bolivar, around Calle 33 #3-5, across the street from upscale boutique Ketty Tinoco. While this bike rental business does not appear to have a name nor a storefront, the kind and humorous owner and his family are always ready to rent their bikes, which range in selection from kids sizes to adult tandems (kid seat optional).

bike-rental-awning

There are usually bikes in front of the green awnings

Present your identification (valid passport or Colombian cedula), and let them know how long you expect to be gone. When you return, someone will exchange your ID for payment, in cash of course, with exact change preferred.

Other bike rentals throughout the city may be found in Getsemani, like Bike & Arts at #10-23 on popular Calle Media Luna, where many hostels on the street rent from their personal stock. Independent shops include Cartagena de Indias Bike Rental & Touring, at Carrera 10 #36-2 a 36-66, or you can just walk and ask for the nearest bike rental, as many of the legit shops go unadvertised.

Costeños Shakira and Carlos Vives with their hit song “La Bicicleta”

Bicycling for leisure or focused exercise can be tricky in Centro and around Cartagena. Old cobblestone streets challenge even the knobbiest of tires, with taxis and other vehicles rarely yielding to any “right of way.” It is advised to leave the sidewalk to the pedestrian tourists, however you may occasionally find yourself hopping the curb to dodge a treacherous fender.

bici-street

One fun option is to ride on top of the murallas, the eleven kilometers of walls, built by African slaves during the rule of the Spanish Crown, that wrap around the center of the city.

bici-kd-murallas

Thumbs up for Las Murallas

Read about the latest pride and joy of Colombia: Tour de France winner Jarlinson Pantano

While you may have to occasionally dismount and walk (and of course be courteous of pedestrians), the walls provide an excellent pathway for cycling as you see the beauty of Cartagena. Be sure to stop for a beverage somewhere: vendors on the wall offer cold drinks and snacks, to stay hydrated and refreshed in the hot Caribbean climate.

As you may have already guessed, it’s recommended to dress in cool, comfortable clothing, like shorts and a breathable shirt, with a sun-blocking hat (if you forgo the bike helmet which many places offer with the rental) and sensible sandals or shoes. Keep in mind that even the most snug flip flops tend to go flying if you pedal too fast.

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Plaza Santa Teresa, forever picturesque!

As your bike rental time winds down, if you synchronize the hour just right, you’ll be able to catch one of the gorgeous sunsets over the ocean, which edges many parts of the historic city. Set yourself up for some excellent photos, or just watch as the sky shifts, on a typical tropical evening, from pure blue to fiery orange, finishing with a rich violet as the sun melts into the vast horizon. As dusk creeps over the city, and lamp posts begin to glow on colorful street scenes, climb back on your bike, riding slowly in the night air, and savor those remaining minutes before surrendering your two-wheeled wonder.

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Fiery sunset sky over the Caribbean Sea

 

 


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Steady-Growing Sands of Playa Blanca

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A lancha named for my friend Andrea in Bogotá

Living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia has it’s advantages, like being less than an hour from paradise, notably the white sand beaches of Playa Blanca on Isla Barú. Each visit to this magical island often reminds the visitor of the beauty of nature and the ocean, even if for just one night.

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Chillin in front of Los Corales

Traveling via bus from the center of Cartagena to Pasacaballos and then by taxi to the beach, 12:30 p.m. was an excellent arrival time: the beach was still filling with people, and the sun beamed brightly through billowy white clouds on a bright blue sky.

Heading north on the shore, past the crowds of families and vendors, finding a cabaña at Las Aventuras de Pipocho was a wise choice before a quick change from clothes and a refreshing swim in clear sparkling waters.

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Humble cabaña at Las Aventuras de Pipocho

After a few hours, salt-water logged and hungry, finding lunch on Playa Blanca was easy, due to the many new restaurants and hostels recently built on the once-open shores of this beautiful oasis.

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Walking only a few meters along the blue waves dotted with rocky white coral, the menu from Dios es Todos featured several vegetarian options, including a “burger” with fries, at a reasonable cost for the beach, where vendors tend to hike prices due to transport and storage. After a ten minute wait, the food arrived, hot and fresh: a grilled protein patty and fried egg, fresh lettuce and tomato, nudged between soft bread; tasty and satisfying after a good swim.

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Tengo hambre! I’m hungry!

Hours later, after suntanning, snorkeling among black and white striped fish and diving down to view bits of red ruffled sponge (Teichaxinella sp.), a cool bucket shower and clean clothes meant being night-ready and revived. During a second walk down the beach at happy hour, Reggae music played while beach dwellers settled into chaise lounges to watch the sun set, sipping cocktails and savoring the last bits of the day.

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Snorkel-happy, swimming with fishes

In the past two years, construction on Playa Blanca has been growing at gazelle-like speeds, with hostels competing for space in front of one another, or building skyward, adding third floors to their already bulging edifices. Coctelerias kiosks have been replaced with full eateries, and even the coco loco stands have given way to full bars.

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And before 2015, there were no buildings, only the big tree

Memories of picnics with friends under a tall tree with very few buildings nearby have faded, replaced by crammed palm-roofed palcos and hostels offering tent space on the surrounding sands.

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Two years ago, considering a second job with Blachete

Those returning after a visit to Playa Blanca can only wonder how long it will be before these bamboo and wood buildings, some of them three-deep at varying intervals, overtake the shores completely. Still, if you can find your solitude in a small space, it is a sweet place for an overnight, as the sky fills with stars and the air surrenders to a slightly cool breeze.

With its turquoise, briny water at warm bath-like temperatures, the sea surrounding the beach is a waist-waders dream for sheer relaxation.

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Boats start work with the sunrise

Morning arrived like a warm, wet blanket, as the electricity to the cabaña had some how been cut during the night, leaving the hours between five and seven a.m. to rise in temperature with the sun. A sweaty walk down the beach, which was filling again with people, brought delicious coffee and juice at Bar Zion before another few hours in the ocean.

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Buenos dias con café de Colombia

With its turquoise, briny water at warm bath-like temperatures, the sea surrounding the beach is a dream for those seeking sheer relaxation. Likewise, watching paddle boarders and kite surfers submit to the seawater in physical activity was motivating, but the best decision was welcoming the buñelo lady with her golden nuggets of delicious fried corn meal, served with a slice of chilled quesito blanco in a paper napkin: the perfect little start to another coastal day.

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Hangin’ with the Buñelo lady. Delicious!

A few hours later, the beach swarmed busily with happy people reveling in a festivo Monday. Taking a last glance at the little local paradise, a taxi back to Cartagena left the crowds to clamor for shade under umbrellas and tarps, wishing them all “buenas tarde” on the steady-growing sands of Playa Blanca.

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For all [that is] evil in the sea, [is] all good too


36 Hours in Guadalajara

Saying “adios” to Puerto Vallarta on a Tuesday morning, heading towards Guadalajara by bus, the terrain along the drive was beautiful as the landscape changed from beaches and palm trees to mountains and thick greens. Arriving behind schedule, the bus sank into deep traffic surrounding the capitol of Jalisco, joining work commuters as congestion grew on the main connectors of this well-traveled city.

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Xoloitzcuintli street art outside a Centro café

After securing accommodations, I headed out into the busy streets of Centro in search of some delicious Méxican food for dinner, heading once again towards Mercado San Juan de Dios, the largest market in Latin America, with 40,000 square meters of vendor stalls, boutiques, artists and eateries.

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Coaches line up outside Mercado Libertad, or Mercado San Juan de Dios

Among the many counters available, Fonda Maru offers plump, breaded chile rellenos from a display piled high with dark green poblano peppers stuffed with cheese. After heating a skillet with oil and a bright red tomato salsa, the cook selected a pepper from the display, swirling in the poblano in the bubbly sauteé. He fried the pepper to golden perfection, serving it a la carte in a colorful ceramic bowl, with a side of warm corn tortillas and a few salsas.

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Delicious, drippy food from Fonda Maru

The following day, I returned to Mercado San Juan just after lunchtime, when the counters would be less crowded but the morning food would still be fresh. A persuasive woman beckoned patrons to Mariscos Brisa, offering several tempting options, including empanadas, tacos and tostadas. At her recommendation, I ordered an empanada with fish and shrimp, and a taco with fried shrimp, as well as a Cerveza Tecate with lime and salt. She placed a place of saltines and a few tostadas on the counter with some diced cucumber tossed in lime, cilantro and Tajin to enjoy while waiting.

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one of many corners of Mariscos Brisa

Hollering across to the two eateries across from hers, the hostess dispersed the order to the other counters of Mariscos Brisa. About 10 minutes later, two hot empanadas, stuffed generously with fish and shrimp arrived, along with several chiles and salsas. “Try this one!” she raved with a smile, “My father makes it in our home.”

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Amazing empanadas and cerveza in a styrofoam soup cup

The tangy brown sauce was rich with roasted onion, salty spices and smoky chipotle, definitely worth tasting. A few minutes later, the taco arrived, stuffed with several fried shrimp, shredded lettuce, cabbage and tomato. My mouth did a little Mexican hat dance among the savoriness of this late lunch.

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La Doña offering Pata de Mula with a smile

Between sips of cold Tecate, I relished every bite, watching as the ladies lure hungry shoppers to their counters. Mariscos Brisa features some curious dishes on their menu like Vuelve de La Vida and Pata de Mula, the latter being a deceiving name for a rich-flavored, dark-colored oyster. The hostess gladly cracked open a Pata de Mula, showing off one of many way it is prepared and served. Finally, $100 MXN ($5.00 USD) later, I thanked her generously for this simple but delicious experience.

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Fruit haven inside Mercado San Juan del Dios

Winding through the cramped stalls and corridors of San Juan del Dios, shoppers seem pleasantly overwhelmed by the colors, textures, sights and sounds of the giant marketplace, which literally sells nearly anything. There appears to be an order to the chaos, with departments cloistered near one another including leather goods, sportswear, cellular accessories, handcrafted textiles, housewares, and – in the most olfactory-arousing area – perfumes and beauty products.

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A small sampling of beautiful handcrafts

One smiling vendor offered an array of embroidered goods, including the flowered cinturons (belts) that compliment the blouses popular in México, bargaining fair prices for the purchase of two. Heading out of the market, it was hard to resist ordering a cold alfalfa auga fresca, one of many delicious natural juices offered among the produce vendors of the first floor open air market.

A short walk led to nearby Plaza Tapatia, a sprawling city park with several beautiful sculptures and memoirs of the building of Guadalajara, including the large Coast of Arms from Carlos V. Popular with the locals, this large gathering place also serves as an outdoor showroom for artisans and merchants, where curious children duck behind their parents, eyes wide to tourists and potential customers.

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Carlos V Coat of Arms in Plaza Tapatia

The rest of the afternoon was spent roaming the Centro along Avendia Juarez, one of the main thoroughfares in Guadalajara, capturing photos in Plaza de las Armas, including an image first taken in 2012, in front of the historic Cathedral, on a premiere visit to this glorious landmark of the city.

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In the evening, after the rains had cooled the night air, people filled the streets again, many heading out for drinks and desserts. Meeting a former student (now friend) at Chai Centro, we conversed over a menu of small plates and snacks (like chicharos, dried green peas) plus an array of beverages, from coffee to craft beers.

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Beautiful cathedral after an evening’s rain

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Tamarindo and Tequila Martini, chicharos and a café Americano

Early the next morning, boarding an InterJet flight with several stops to Mexico City and Bogotá, and a change to LATAM airlines, the ending in Cartagena was well-anticipated. While the Mexico City change was brief, the wait in Bogotá was about four hours, a bit too long when the final flight home was less than two hours.

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Kerry (left) and Andrea (right)

However, a long layover did provide time to meet with two exceptional women: Andrea, a former WorldTeach Colombia 2014 volunteer and current teacher-traveler, and Kerry, owner of Sipsi Maria Bwtic, an online boutique supporting art and design to gain respect and value as artists both nationally and internationally.

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After inspiring conversation and a quick lunch at Colombia’s popular Crepes and Waffles, the final connection began on the journey home to Cartagena. As the LATAM jet took off, settling in with the July issue of VAMOS magazine featuring colorful articles on Barcelona and Cuba, ideas began stirring for the next adventure following this glorious Summer Vacation 2016.


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Nos Vemos, Puerto Vallarta

“A farewell is necessary before you can meet again.” – Richard Bach, American novelist

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Good Morning, pretty city

While a visit to Puerto Vallarta is synonymous with sunny beach days and breezy nights, it helps to have some activity, perhaps even physical motivation, from the normal seaside vacation. Discovering Star-Mex Fitness and Aerial Silks was the perfect distraction from sunscreen and sand. From the first inversion in the silks with acrobatic and trainer Dahn Vallarta Centeno to the twists and swings of momentum that followed, it became obvious this is not a practice for the faint at heart.

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Dahn shows off his expert climbing skills

read more about Star-Mex and Dahn Vallarta in Bay Vallarta magazine online

Dahn, who previously performed (and also trained dolphins) with Vallarta Adventures, offers several classes a day as well as private lessons, making this is a great alternative for any tourist or traveler who misses their workout but doesn’t want to feel like a gym rat on vacation. Celebrities like Pink, who first performed in silks during the 2010 Grammys, know the core-strengthening benefits of this sport; after a day session, its easy to understand why she’s a fan.

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Thanks for the lift, Star-Mex!

If gliding in fabric over a small studio space isn’t your forté, you could try an eco-adventure for a vacation change. My opportunity, while not part of an actual tour, happened by chance with two friends who have started a debris-collecting and recycling company that peruses business piles after hours, resourcefully and responsibly turning trash into income.

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A margarita before we head out for some recyclables

With some clever names in the works for licensing, the partnership traverses the streets of downtown Puerto Vallarta, as well as nearby Pitillal, aggregating cardboard, aluminum and plastic, then sorting the goods for cash.

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A quick taco break between shifts!

While not a new concept to the modern world, recycling remains a non-competitive venture in many parts of Puerto Vallarta, despite some volunteer efforts to clean up the historic town. With some businesses in Vallarta are still perfecting earth-friendly practices, there is chance for a burgeoning and profitable business in the future if these two stick to their “green” plan.

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Mouthwatering botanos from La Mesa del Coco

For the final day in Puerto Vallarta, aside from wrapping up details and securing bus travel to Guadalajara, meeting with friends once again at La Mesa del Coco was a low-key, local way to pass the afternoon, playing dominoes and enjoying delicious offerings from the bar.

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Singing as the sun sets, buenas noche to another day

A final walk along the Malecon to enjoy a cloudy sunset, snack on a creamy cup of elote with cheese and salsa, and make a few purchases, including a colorful blanket and a woven basket from Alfareria Tlaquepaque, a huge treasure trove /store of gifts and classic Mexican households.

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Colors! Gracias, Alfarería Tlaquepaque

Walking through the 5 de diciembre neighborhood early in the morning, with a heavy suitcase and an equally heavy heart, I said goodbye once again, knowing Puerto Vallarta will probably always be here, ready to rejuvenate or relax the spirit, and remembering that “Adios” means both hello and goodbye.

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Calle Colombia and my house in the background…coincidence? Probably not


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Mixto in Quimixto and Puerto Vallarta

Flying from Tijuana to Puerto Vallarta on a Thursday, the two airports boasted their share of travelers, many enjoying the Mexican holidays of summer. After a comfortable, fast flight with Volaris airlines, I arrived in Puerto Vallarta just in time to catch a bus into the Centro as the after-work traffic had thinned out.

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50 steps up… with luggage!

A 50-stair climb carved from hillside and stone led to a small apartment with outstanding views of the ocean and sunset. After unpacking, a quick walk to 60-year old Restaurant “Lolita”, where a delicious meal of sopes and cold Corona was devoured for less than $100 pesos (about $8.00 US) . Even though this small, historical eatery sits right on the main avenue, it lacks the trendy prices of the Malécon, serving comfort Mexican food, even until the late hours, if you knock quietly and the cook is still willing.

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Sopes at Restaurante “Lolita”

Friday night in Puerto Vallarta almost always means a party, with weekend revelry and tourists visiting the area. Meeting at La Mesa del Coco (est. 1986), we celebrated the birthday of our friend Calamardo with an asado of grilled steak and shrimp, followed by an incredibly rich cheesecake-like pastel, complete with a candle that took several attempts to ignite (sparkler-type, beware!)

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Love this place!

The evening wrapped up nicely with a walk along the waterfront of Bahia de Banderas, watching families pose for photos, avoiding vendors shouting “Hey amiga, free tequila!” and a final salute of fireworks from the replica pirate ship Marigalante.

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Loading the panga at Boca de Tomatlan

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Unloading the panga at Quimixto

A day trip to the small village of Quimixto brought gentle adventure and the type of green paradise that causes you to appreciate nature. Meeting Calamardo by the OXXO (corner of Basillo Badillo and Constitucion in Old Town), we took a half-hour bus ride along the ocean’s coast towards Mismaloya, stopping at a few hotels before getting off at Boca de Tomatlan. After helping our water taxi driver load supplies for the day’s haul into the panga, we set off for about a ten minute ride to Quimixto.

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Bruno “working” on the beach in Quimixto

Arriving to a long, white sand beach, we were greeted by Bruno, whose owner manages Los Cocos, a delicious dining establishment on the beach, and part of the same family from La Mesa del Coco. After unloading the boat, we were offered a horse and mule to ride to the nearby waterfall.

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Mounted up and ready to go

Following a twenty minute journey through some fairly narrow crevices and several shallow rivers, we approached a small lake with a waterfall at one end. Local burro handler, Nacho, who has lived in Quimixto for over 25 years, tied our horses together as we navigated across wet terrain and rushing waves.

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Bienvenidos to the cascada

To some surprise, the island-dwellers have taken over the area, slightly stifling the feel of nature. The bridge to cross and footpath into the water, pretty much the only way into the cool pool below, are “owned” by the restaurant nearby, with signs posted asking for payment to sit at their tables regardless of a purchase. While others have criticized this harshly, we were able to cross over without a hassle, and an owner of the restaurant kindly approached us at one point, ensuring our camera was safe on the rocks while we relaxed in the water.

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Hola, baby horse! Photo © Darren Woodward 2016

After the waterfall, we rode back to Los Cocos to enjoy a mountain of delicious, fresh ceviche, crisp tostadas and cold beer, watching the afternoon slide by as workers noshed on late lunches nearby. Returning by the same water taxi, we picked up several families with babies, supplies and pets, ducking into small beach coves as we made our way back to Boca de Tomatlan.

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Ceviche mountain and cold cervezas

Many thanks to Oscar, our friendly, helpful guide and part of the family that owns La Mesa del Coco and Los Cocos!

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Feliz en la vida, how could we not be?!


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All I Wanna is Tijuana

santa-feDeparting from Sacramento for SAN via LAX on an early Saturday morning, the short American Airlines flight touched down in sunny San Diego, with travel to beautiful Santa Fe Station made easy by the city trolley. Reuniting with my awesome travel partner, we took the trolley to San Ysidro, crossing the border into Tjuana, México by the pedestrian entry.

Read here about the new pedestrian entry between the US and Mexico

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Travel Partners 4 Life Yo

Our first stop was Playas de Tijuana for delicious artisan pizza from Horno 320 and a walk along the cliffside malecón towards the border line. Curious to try the chatarra of Baja-California, we shared some Tostilocos: a wild concoction of Tostitos, peanuts, cubed cheese, onion, jicama, salsa and salty-sweet dried pieces of tamarindo known as chacachaca. Tostilocos are inexplicably not so good for your body, but really great for your soul. ¡K rrriccoo!

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Cha cha Chaca chaca

Sunday was a trip from TJ to San Diego, where All-Star 2016 MLB festivies were in full (bat) swing. Finding coffee in Horton Park Plaza, watching a yoga group perform two-person asanas, and finally walking to Bub’s in the Ballpark district for food and drinks, the day concluded with an incredible reunion with a high-school friend from 30 years ago.

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See you in another 30 years, Dion!

Monday my travel partner and I ventured out to find a favorite hidden restaurant, only to (sadly) discover it was closed. The alternative, Alma Verde, with its cold pressed juices and vegan dishes was an excellent choice, and a welcome surprise to this first-time visit in Tijuana.

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A squash au gratin appetizer, followed by a minty quinoa salad with crusty bread and cayenne-pepper limonada was the perfect fresh combination for an early afternoon dinner. Next, we visited the impressive galleries and sculpture gardens of the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT), featuring the only IMAX cinema in Tijuana, known as La Bola (“The Ball”).

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Nothing beats a fake-looking Star Wars background in Mexico!

Tuesday was a day trip adventure through Baja-California, with a few stops along the picturesque coast. Driving from Tijuana to Rosarita and Ensenanda, we stopped for coffee and a walk along the waterfront, posing for obligatory photos under the famous giant bandera: a landmark for cruise ships and tourists.

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Driving along Mexico’s beautiful coast

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Overlooking the homes on the coast. Viva Jesus!

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Ensenada marina with my friends in the background

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Shine on, Mexico!

Continuing on to not find Bufadora but instead proceed directly to Valle de Guadalupe, we arrived to a tour of La Chetto winery, one of the oldest and largest in México. After the tour, our guide Rodrigo educated our group on the varieties of wines available by the vineyard, and poured hefty glasses for our group to taste. ¡Fine Wine in México, hijole!

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La Chetto, divino vino!

Lunch was an indulgent meal at picturesque restaurant Latitud 32, including Yucatan-inspired mixed ceviche and Mackerel-stuffed Papadzules, as we took in the beautiful view of the Vinos El Cielo vineyard and surrounding mountains.

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Delicious food with an amazing view

Before heading home, we visited La Casa Doña Lupe, an environmentally-conscious vineyard, restaurant and farm, where we sampled several cheeses, dips and jellies before settling on a platano-chocolate marmalade and an apple-habanero spread.

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Dona Lupe – we tasted every one of these!

A visit to Tijuana seems incomplete without a walk along Avenida Revolucion and the predictable photo mounted on Mexican mythological creature, the Zonkey, or Zebra Burro. This wide, centuries-old street lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, and discotecas ends at the Monumental Arch, created in 2000 to welcome visitors to Zona Centro. After snapping several silly shots with Paco and his tacky accoutrements, we found our way into a small group of modern eateries offering specialty tacos, Asian bowls and Italian fusion.

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Ready for the revolution with LM and Paco the Zonkey

For the last evening out in TJ, a visit to Plaza Fiesta revealed the hipster side of Tijuana, with clusters of bars and drinkeries, less busy on a weekday night than its regular packed weekends. Winding our way through, we landed at Puerto El Sauzal, sampling a few fine craft beers before settling on the flavorful Pescador Blonde Wheat and hefty Del Puerto Brown Porter. Rounding out our night: a midnight snack of quesadillas and tacos at Restaurante Mexicanos, a legendary 24-hour diner.

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loooovvvee horchata and quesadilla de maiz con napolitos mmm

Wrapping up this adventure, it’s easy to say that a visit this reputable Mexican city was an amazing surprise. While it seems possible to find the cliché town depicted in films like La Bamba, with tequila-swilling, mustached hombres in giant somberos and skinny dogs howling to foul guitars, it feels as if the old Tijuana is quickly being usurped by new versatile culture. Boasting impressive international events, remarkable fusion dining and an array of diverse nightlife, the July issue of Volaris magazine may be correct, with Tijuana a top contender as the next cosmopolitan mecca.

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Oie, Frida, Tijuana es GO!


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Sactown, Tacos and Time

“There is no secret—or magic, as they like to call it—to their friendship. It’s just unconditional love.”
-Ann Brashares, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2001)

The mid-way point of summer vacation has revealed that if all roads lead to home, your home is simply your heart, as long as it is filled with love. Continuing on from ATL/DFW to SMF -> touching down in the capital city of California, meant a long-awaited hug from a wonderful friend, who drove directly from the Sacramento airport to taqueria La Fiesta, to indulge in delicious tacos and spicy micheladas.

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3 years later, Mario still makes great micheladas!

Waking up in the USA on the 4th of July provided a wave of patriotic delight synonymous with being in my home country on it’s birthday. An afternoon venture to Thrift Town for their annual Independence (From High Prices) Day sale meant grabbing up bargains and a few souvenirs (29 cents for a sweet mini American flag). The afternoon brought a visit with Vespa owner/State worker mom, Trysh (plus a slow-motion departure crash through her apartment gates), confirming true friends often provide as much sparkle and shine as any holiday fireworks.

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Twinning in striped tops with Trysh, selfie-time!

Another tradition making this visit to Sacramento exceptional was dining out on Taco Tuesday, when restaurants throughout the city offer happy hour specials, including long-time favorite Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar. Joining a long-separated friend, we noshed on tacos, traditional sopes and empanadas, before calling it an early night.

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La Favorita con cerveza Victoria daaaaaa

Although it’s true Sacramento has some of the most authentic taquerias far north of the border, a two-hour drive to San Francisco brought a completely different palate, from the city that rarely disappoints with an array of cuisines and unique locations. Driving into downtown across the not-quite-finished Bay Bridge, we admired the view of the city at dusk, with Alcatraz island casting eerie shadows and little lights dancing against a deepening blue sky.

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Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar and Izakaya provided the perfect place to delight in decadent (moderatetly-priced) hand-crafted artisan meat-free dishes. From the salty-perfection of miso soup and a chewy, bright green seaweed salad, to plated faux sushi and deep ramen bowls, our party was happy with this Bay Area eatery.

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Our table, comprised of original San Francisco Scooter Girls, minus founder Jennifer and a few other members, made our dinner a mini-celebration, collectively giving thanks for each other and our many personal transitions in life over the past twelve years.

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The week in Sacramento passed quickly with sunny, slow mornings by the pool and late, saucy evenings out on the town. Regretfully, work and schedules (theirs not mine) meant missing many good friends, but squeezing in time to meet with others, including a night at Midtown standard Shady Lady Saloon, with it’s tasty cocktails, like the White Linen, a drink rumored to have been created at Ella, also located in Sacramento.

White Linen

· 1 ½ oz gin (try Broker’s Dry)
· ½ oz St. Germain Elderflower Liquor
· ½ oz Simple Syrup
· 1 oz Lemon Juice
· 5-6 thin slices English cucumber

Combine ingredients in a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a highball glass with ice, top with soda water. Garnish with cucumber. (Thanks, Connoisseur Corner for the recipe!)

Another evening, assembling crafty sisters from the original Sacramento Craft Mafia, including the sweet baby of creative founder Amy (is the Party) Cluck-McAllister, we grazed on Mediterranean-focused dishes at Petra Greek Food, carrying on about numerous topics, such as the best links on Pinterest, the disbandment of our original gang, and the power of craft as therapy, while vowing to reunite in another three years (if not sooner).

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Making faces with Jaime at Petra Greek Food in Sacramento

It’s been said that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer; perhaps to this may be added that travel you buy with time to visit friends makes you immeasurably wealthy. When you realize you are surrounded by people who graciously pick up where you left off, it’s only natural to carry them with you into to the years ahead.


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Spectacular, Swift Days of Summer

It seemed as soon as the Delta Jet to Charleston touched down, the American Airlines plane took off, with five days in Atlanta, GA on the horizon. One plush pick-up from the airport by Artemio and Duluth Taxi Service and big, bright Georgia skies stretched for miles beyond interstate 85, heading into the tall trees of Sugar Hill.

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with Mark and Jimmy at Wuxtry

A day trip into “the city” meant a visit to Wuxtry records, an Atlanta landmark buying and selling music of nearly every medium since 1978. Conversing with the owner and his summer employee, guitarist for classic Atlanta punk band Neon Christ as my pilot indulged himself like a kid in a candy store, perusing the stacks of vinyl, we left with a Stan Kenton boxed set among the loot.

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Settling for a Stan Kenton boxed set and several pre-owned CD’s.

Afternoon lunch at Bravo’s Cantina and Grill, where the friendly staff serves authentic Mexican food, including a tangy, delectable ceviche tostada and perfectly-grilled nopales (cactus) was followed by a quick visit to Mint Julep’s, with its Southern-themed  accoutrements and beauty items like Savannah Bee company lip balm in unique flavors including, appropriately, Mint Julep.

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one of the many hilarious signs at Mint Julep’s

Perhaps the greatest part of this visit to Atlanta was reuniting with a friend after 17 years: Renée and I worked together at a tech company in the 1990’s, but has since gone on to raise two awesome kids with her wonderful husband Ryan. Meeting at Dutch Monkey Doughnuts, we devoured several unbelievable gourmet baked goods before heading over to their little house near Lake Lanier filled with love, stuff and three hilarious dachshunds.

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Dutch Monkey, I’ve died and gone to Doughnut heaven

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Hallelujah for Kahlua

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The shiny smiles of the C K Crew

Wrapping up Georgia, the Atlanta airport return trip with Artemio was uneventful… until American Airlines changed the departure gate. Relocating several yards away and settling into an unassuming seat along the wall, I looked up just in time to see Latin Grammy award-winning artist Nicky Jam walk by.

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Why yes, Nicky Jam, thanks, I am a fan!

With his undeniable trademark tattoos, I called out, “Hey, Nicky Jam!” to which he replied with a wink. Watching as he turned around and began crossing back, “Nicky Jam,” I said again, struggling to balance my backpack, “will you take a photo with me?” Noticing my wrangling act, he quickly crossed and sat down.

Click here for a biography of Nicky Jam, including news about his first time touring in the US

In two seconds, I snapped a photo with one of my favorite artists, who has recorded with famous singers including Enrique Iglesias and Silvestre Dangon. It was refreshing to meet a megastar who isn’t too busy, arrogant or unaware of others to spare a few seconds for a photo.

Moments later, the American Airlines flight to Sacramento began boarding. In-flight entertainment included the excellent July 2016 Latin Showcase playlist (featuring Nicky Jam), providing some great music as the plane chased the sun along the horizon.

With half a month of travel left, and a heart already grateful for memories of friends, food, and famous singers, this summer vacation is moving along well, with each spectacular day leading swiftly into the next.

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tracks image courtesy of American Airlines


2 Comments

All Senses Lead to Summer

Summer Vacation 2016 started early this year, as Janine and Denise from Couchsurfing Atlanta arrived mid-June for a week in Cartagena, Colombia. After greeting them at the airport, and within a few hours of their arrival, Denise and I discovered we worked together at a technology company over 14 years ago, thus concluding that the world is indeed the size of a walnut.

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with Deena, Denise, Janine and Maya in the AirBnB apartment

Welcoming a third Couchsurfer, Deena, a few days later, we joined our friend Jésus at his newly-formed Lingo Cartagena language exchange, meeting more travelers and multi-linguists, enjoying the atmosphere of Beiyú Slow Food and Coffee in the Getsemani neighborhood. Following the meeting, we headed out for some street food, finding pincho, also referred to as chuzo, served hot from a cart by Brayan, who posed for photos with us and his dinner-on-a-stick delicacy.

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Chuzo es Pincho con Jesus, Deena, Brayan, Johnny and Denise

On a Friday evening, departure from school for the summer was celebrated by riding a Chiva with local company Chocolate Tours, whose jocular emcee and festive on-board band delighted its party-going customers.

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Guys from Chile, girls from Chiva

From the gathering point near La Caponera, to the passing of rum and cokes along Laguito, to the stop on Las Murallas where reliable vendor Wilmer provided cold drinks and photo props, the Chiva tour provided yet another fun night out. Ending the tour at Discoteca Taboo, we embraced new friends to bailando the night away.

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On Sunday, flying a Delta jet to Charleston, South Carolina meant nine days in the pretty, warm Lowcountry, savoring traditional southern food like irresistible shrimp and grits, boiled peanuts and plenty of sweet tea.  A visit to James Island’s Bohemian Bull one late afternoon brought an incredible crab cake “burger” with fried green tomato, arugula and a spicy-sweet side of slaw.

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Bohemian Bull burger!

No visit to “The Island” is complete without several haphazardly-organized meetings with lifelong friends who pick up, and this was no exception. After a few days exploring newly-opened establishments and perusing the aisles of whatever mercado has replaced the long-gone Piggly Wiggly, the slowless of the South took over like kudzu crawling on a curbside mailbox.

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Lifelong friends, still looking good after all these years

Fortunately, standard places like Charleston Crab House on the Wappoo Creek provide excellent space for catching up and exchanging stories since our last rendez-vous. Colombia was playing the USA in the semi-finals of CopaAmerica 2016, and several bars on Folly Beach were happy to display the game on their big screens. Finalmente, after 90+ minutes of tension, Ojála! Colombia won, 1-0.

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Tagua rings from Colombia, ready to win the partido

As vacation time in Charleston came to an end, the roundup began: embracing lifelong friends, enjoying new connections, waiting a (disappointing) hour for (always delicious) tacos with Bam sauce at Roadside Seafood, breathing in the smell of pluff mud marshes and watching as salt water brine boiled green peanuts, confirming the overall conclusion that all senses lead to summer.

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My bestie is probably better than yours, but I’ll still let you borrow her.


Culminate the Great(ness)

A recent post regarding Five More Things to Love About Living in Colombia, prompted several readers to ask about living abroad and maintaining a “normal” life away from your family, customs, country, and all that has been familiar for many years. With more happy days than sad, there are several methods which, when practiced regularly, often culminate into genuine satisfaction in living abroad.

1. Wake up wonderfully

It’s no secret that how we start our day often impacts how the rest of the day will go. One factor that may weigh in on the waking is what we wake up hearing… is it an offensive, beeping alarm? A loud bell or a shrill tone? Keep in mind, this is first sound your conscious mind hears after several hours at a much slower momentum.

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daaaa I’m awake now.  photo © smolive.com

My iPhone alarm is set to Fonseca’s Beautiful Sunshine, with a second alarm, thirty minutes, set later to Jimmy Cliff’s I Can See Clearly Now. The logic is that if these two songs don’t put me in a good mood, the day is probably doomed; so far it’s working favorably. Fonseca’s song is a brilliant, tinny blend of guitar and accordion with the Bogota-born singer’s mesmerizing voice.  Jimmy Cliff’s song conveys his carefree spirit through poetic lyrics set to an upbeat tempo, triggering happy reminiscences of childhood days in Antigua, British West Indies.  Now, does picturing Caribbean blue seas and golden sunshine make the day seem doomed? Exactly.

Good Morning Sunshine. photo © mycaribspot.com

Good Morning Sunshine. photo © mycaribspot.com

2. Have Joy in Your Job

Another trick to happier days is discovering a joyful existence in what you already have, even at work. For some, it’s being personally satisfied with the job they do and relating well to those with whom they work. While it may not be their dream job or exactly what they would like to be doing, those who choose to do a job well and are actively engaged, and thankful to be employed, find that this is enough.

Enjoying gifts from my school on Dia de la Maestra

Enjoying gifts from my school on Dia de la Maestra

For others, this idea goes one step further by feeling present, that is, conscious and appreciated in the workplace. Even when the job is difficult, for example, as a teacher in a foreign country, how you choose to view the work can often make a world of difference in what you actually do, and naturally, in what comes as a result of this choice.

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It’s all part of the job… Dia del Idioma at school, with award-winning Vallenato artist Dyonnel Velásquez and his band!

3. There’s No Place Like (My Temporary) Home

Finding solitude and comfort in the space where we live can have a tremendous impact on how we go about our days. If we aren’t living in a place we enjoy, or simply consider it comfortable or like being there, then how can we exist among others in communal places? Having lived for years outside of my native country, it’s apparent that one of the big secrets to staying happy is having a place to call home. Even if “home” is a rented apartment with a view of the ocean, a private room with a loving host family, or a sunlit studio hidden away near the airport, a familiar place to retreat to at the end of the day is critical to sustaining happiness.

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UNO championship table under the mango tree on the patio

4. Make Mantras, Even by Mistake

Mantras seem to be everywhere these days, even when they are in disguise. Can a mantra be resembled as a meme? Not the goofy ones you see on 9gag, but maybe the deeper ones, or even just the text-on-images Instagram posts. Are they really that different? Some mantras are made by mistake, like a gift from an outside source asking for attention. “Una época para estrenar. Todo los días. Un mundo de alegría.” translates loosely to “A time to release. Everyday. A world of joy.” This was created from a department store flyer, while waiting for a laundry cycle to end, without knowing exactly what it meant: a happy accident, a Mantra by Mistake.

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5. Create Reciprocation for Inspiration

Teachers are often recognized for their ability to inspire students as growing young adults – encouraging them to achieve more, or explore who they are and what they want. But what if the students, and the teaching, are the real inspiration: an inspiration that depends on reciprocation? Even when teaching high school feels really difficult, it seems beneficial to try and find the one Inspirational Moment of the Day.

11th grade girls portraying Gabriel Garcia Marquez and friends

11th grade students portraying Gabriel Garcia Marquez and friends for Dia del Idioma

Was it the chatty 7th grader who asked for ICT activities that are more “didactic”? Or perhaps the discovery that Flubaroo really can help manage 200 student grades in just a few mouse clicks. Whatever your vocation is, try to find something that gives you motivation to aspire for more, and thus, the opportunity to return the inspiration. Consider it a win-win for all, even if the game being played is UNO… for the 10th time this week.

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Book reviews and cake… another day of inspiration!


Another California to Colombia Journey

Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.
– Stephen Covey  (American author and businessman, 1932 – 2012)

Allison Kielhold
is coming to teach in Colombia! Here’s how you can help with her journey. 

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Thumbs up! Allison will be a fantastic volunteer teacher.

Allison Kielhold of San Diego, California has recently been accepted into the WorldTeach Colombia 2016 Semester Program. Allison and her friend Janika visited Cartagena de Indias during their March 2016 travels on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. When we met, Allison asked about my experience moving from California to Colombia, especially how I managed to live well on such a tight volunteer budget. Focus, I explained, along with the concept of “Ask. Believe. Receive.”, leads to the idea that most goals are completely achievable with the winning combination of curiosity and determination. It also helps to have people who support your goals!

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With Janika and Allison at Papaya Hostel in Getsemani

For more information on Allison and her plans, please enjoy this article by Sierra Service Project
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Allison working in Honduras alongside other volunteers and community members to build homes in 2010. Photo © Sierra Service Project

The volunteers in the Colombia 2016 Semester Program will be placed in schools for six months, teaching English as a Foreign Language. Allison is focused on raising a modest amount of $1,495 to pay for program cost and a plane ticket by June 2016. Please consider donating to Allison’s fundraising! This is a chance for you to help someone fulfill a dream of helping others and no amount is too small.

Allison Fundraising

Living abroad and accepting the challenges and celebrations that come with it includes being able to share these experiences with others who seek a similar existence. I am constantly motivated to independently mentor and encourage others in their pursuit of living and working abroad. Your donation to Allison will help in her to achieve this, as well as the amazing experience of living in Colombia. No doubt Allison will find all that I have here: the beauty of the country, the love of its culture and especially, connecting with its people, all made easier with help from your support. ¡Abrazos a ti, Allison! xo

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Lunch at Totopo in Cartagena de Indias, talking about volunteering with Allison

Update June 14th, 2016: Allison will be living and working in my beautiful adopted city, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Congratulations, Allison! La Fantastica awaits you.


Sabor de La Vida y Salchipapas

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Gateway to fun! Bienvenidos

Feliz cumpleaños, Barranquilla! On April 7th the city, founded in 1813, celebrated its 203 birthday. While it isn’t quite the 480+ years of Cartagena de Indias, La Arenosa (translation: The Sand), as Barranquilla is often called, is a notable, historic city all its own. Travel guide book publisher Lonely Planet gives Barranquilla a so-so review, basically stating if you don’t go for Carnaval, there is little reason to visit. It is possible the writers at Lonely Planet don’t have many friends who are Barranquilleros: some of the warmest, happiest, ready-to-party people in South America.

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The bus passes right by La Troja, dancing in your seat optional

So, while Lonely Planet doesn’t list some of the local landmarks of Barranquilla worth visiting, like La Troja, famous for salsa music and its collection of thousands of rare records, or La Ocho, the area in the south of town known as La Rumba, notorious for its dozens of dance clubs, the review does include some interesting things to do. `

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Happy people in Barranquilla, including some WorldTeach volunteers!

Cartageneros will probably agree that Barranquilla is one of those cities that, once you begin visiting frequently, is often difficult to leave. For the past two annual Semana Santas, a mysterious vortex within the 4th largest urban location in Colombia seems to draw me to the home of the family I lived with as a volunteer. Repeatedly, the pull transposes into a longer visit than planned, enhanced by delicious home cooked meals, laughter with neighbors who stop by to visit, and the simple enjoyment of sitting a rocking chair as evening breezes roll across the spacious patio.

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Mondongo to Go! Don’t spill it

Spring Break 2016 began with a memorable trip on Berlinas, a reliable go-to bus service for fast, inexpensive transport from Cartagena to Barranquilla. Sitting up front with the driver meant having to hold his lunch container of mondongo for the entire two hour drive. The soup was only spilled after a fast hand-off to the other passenger enjoying the front-seat view of our travel. Arriving to the station, smelling a little like the stomach-lining and vegetables, it was clear this week would be filled with antics and laughter.

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Futbol fever

The visit coincided with a futbol game at Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, featuring Colombia playing the United States. Fast planning by our inner circle of adopted family meant tickets in hand within a few hours. Though several people commented it was “just” an Under 23 game, the espiritu of the Colombian fans would speak differently, as happy, excited futbol fans titivated in their finest yellow shirts, filling the stadium with a notable capacity.

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Of course I sang both National Anthems

Following the game, which was a hackneyed 1-1 draw, our group of futbol fans headed for home near La Ocho, which was already buzzing with after-game celebrations. After walking several blocks through Wednesday night revelers, we appropriated a location at South Beach, a bar influenced by its namesake in Miami, where the drinks are served from coolers placed beneath patrons’ tables, and the music ranges from Vallenato to Bachatta to Reggae: perfect for impulsive dancing!

Next to South Beach, Shrek Comidas Rapidas (fast foods) beckoned with nighttime fragrances of french fries and pizza. Using the moniker of the happy green ogre, this outdoor restaurant, with its simple wood furnishings, string lights and brick grill, appears to be quite popular with night diners, as nearly every table was filled with patrons enjoying hearty pizzas, meats with rice, and of course, salichipapas, a snack-type dish synonymous with the coast.

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Shrek Comidas Rapidas on a quieter night

Vegetarians often garner suspicious looks when ordering food in Colombia, but the best is when requesting “salchipapas, sin salchicas” (hot dogs with french fries, but no hot dogs). The waiters nearly always laugh, and dining companions always add “but put her hot dogs on ours,” making it a win-win for everyone. Usually, the dish is delicious without the salchichas: the cheese is still melty and bubbily, the lettuce and tomato are crisp and juicy, and the papas are still flavorful and warm.

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They deliver! But only in Barranquilla.


A la Orden Salchipapas (recipe modified from Platos Latinos)

Ingredients:
potatoes cut into strips, or Fosforitos
hot dogs, sliced into discs
iceberg lettuce, shredded
fresh tomato, diced
cheese, shredded (mozzarella or other white cheese)
salt and pepper, to taste
Salsas:
Golf Sauce (salsa rosada) or ketchup and mayonnaise, mixed
Monztaneza del Rancho

Directions: If you are not using Fosforitos, then peel the potatoes, cut into strips and fry in oil until they are brown and crispy. Add the hot dogs and cook until brown. Drain off any excess oil. Stir the potatoes and hot dogs with the cheese, then layer on a plate with lettuce, tomato and more cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with salsa of your choice.

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Is your mouth watering yet?

A note on salsas: Colombian brand La Constancia sells condiments in squeezable bags, including Salsa Rosada (also called Golf Sauce, similar to ketchup and mayo), and the divine, artery-impeding Mostaza del Rancho, a ranch-flavored mayonaise. While these are not the healthiest addition to your hot-dog-french-fry-cheese mountain of heaven, they do make the dish ridiculously decadent (and ultra-bad for you).
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Salchipapas at home, substitute a cold Aguila for the salchi

So now you know more about visiting Barranquilla, including South Beach, Shrek, salichipapas, and a Spring Break vortex. Despite what Lonely Planet may write, there are always more reasons to visit this fine city: first and foremost the friends, futbol and fast food, followed closely by the festivos, like Carnaval.

This post dedicated to Cake. Adiós, gatita en el cielo. 2013-2016

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Semana Santa 2016: Rioha-cha-cha

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Beautiful Riohacha… palm trees, sand and sea

Semana Santa is a magical time in Colombia when many people break from their busy lives to travel, relax at home or attend multiple church services throughout the seven days appropriately called Holy Week. Plans for my third Semana Santa in Colombia had originally been to go south into new territory including Monteria, Cordobá and two towns in Chocó: Sapzurro and Capurgana. Inspiration from colorful blogs about similar travel routes soon turned to meek disappointment from completely full hostels, and bus ticket prices that were nearly doubled during the week-long hiatus.

Let the Staycation begin!

Let the Staycation begin!

Foregoing the southern passage until a less busier time of the year, the first alternative was a Staycation in Cartagena de Indias, which proved to be a great idea, as it meant time to relax, sleep late and catch up on tournament games of UNO. Add to this a visit two young travelers from Couchsurfing who had inquired about visiting Colombia from the US back in October 2015, and Staycation was off to a good start. Janika and Alison arrived and together we headed to Papaya Hostel in Getsemani to secure their room for the busy week ahead.

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Janika, Alison and our photo in the mirror at Papaya Hostel. Photo by Janika ©2016

After a traditional Colombian lunch of fried fish, patacón, salad and rice, Janika and Alison boarded a bus for Santa Marta, on their way to visit Ciudad Perdida. Though our time was brief, these two mochilleras were inspiring, with their genuine sense of adventure and enlightening curiosity for Colombia.

Staycation continued and, in true Cartagena style, two festivals happened simultaneously the first weekend of Semana Santa: the first ExpoMujer, and the annual Festival del Dulce (sponsored by IPCC), in Plaza de los Coches beneath the historic clock tower.

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The people are as sweet at the treats at Festival del Dulce

Staycation havoc: playing UNO with Luis

For ExpoMujer, several places opened their doors to the public, including the impressive la Institución Universitaria Bellas Artes y Ciencias, located on beautiful plaza Santo Domingo, which set the backdrop for an excellent game of UNO.

Near the Festival del Dulce, a small stage featured live music from Albeiro Jose Aguilar Martinez, the mighty El Condor, a young accordionist from Valledupar, Cesár.

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El Condor tearing up the stage

Two days into Staycation 2016, a call from Barranquilla roused the travelista within, and a new adventure began with a plan to visit Riohacha, capital city of La Guajira. After a night in Barranquilla, began the five hour trip along the winding, ocean-hugging Caribbean Transverse past Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona and Palomino. Following a swift $5000 COP cab ride from the Terminal de Transporte, Bona Vida hostel was a welcome sight with its cheerful bright aqua and orange facade.

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Bona Vida hostel: lovely little oasis of aqua an orange

Hostel owners Katty and Johannes offered a warm, Colombian-Austrian welcome of delicious coffee and a tour of their tiny, neat hospedaje. Next came a brisk walk to Plaza José Prudencio Padilla, anchored by the lovely Cathedral Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. This church, as its namesake indicates, is dedicated to the legendary statue of small miracles, and Riohacha celebrates these miracles with a festival each year.

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As the sun set over the ocean, a walk along the Avendia Primera malecon revealed one of Riohacha’s most famous offerings: handmade arts from the indigenous Wayuu, a tribe from the larger Arawak group who make intricate, multicolored woven crafts with methods handed down by centuries of generations.

Naa wayuukana jemeishi süpüla taashi süma wanawa sülu’u nakua’ipa, aka müin yaa epijainjana sünain anajiranawaa a’in nama napüshi.

Translation: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

These crafts are offered by the dozen along the malecon and, while your biggest challenge may be deciding what to buy, it often isn’t difficult to decide from whom. One inquisitive young boy asked many questions in English, which sounded a bit rehearsed, but his enthusiasm smile and salesmanship appeared to be putting him ahead of the other vendors.

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“What’s your favorite color? My aunt makes beautiful bags. Buy from us!”

Beyond the vendors, but still on the malecon, the yellow mariposa sculpture dedicated to author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who mentions Riohacha in his novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the brilliant, spacious Capilla shimmered equally and elegantly below a near-full moon.

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La Capilla y la misma luna

An early morning rise at Bona Vida hostel brought a few hours of writing, fueled by strong Colombian coffee and bright sun. Creative inspiration flowed from a bright Caribbean palette and the amazing arts of the people in the areas surrounding Riohacha.

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Artist and designer Kerry Davies from Sipsi Maria Bwtic, who lives in Bogotá and sells her beautiful jewelry online, credits the arts of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, including Riohacha, as her influence; with less than 24 hours here, it’s easy to see why.

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Handmade goodness from Sipsi Maria Bwtic

After a full day of enjoying sandy shell-laden beaches, drinking coconut water fresh from the tree, and taking another walk along the malecon, the evening brought more interest in the unique crafts, resulting in several satisfying purchases.

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The crazy caterpillar car in Riohacha

Perhaps the best craft among woven bags, bracelets, and straw hats was the artwork of Luis Martinez del Toro, whose original pieces are enhanced by his sense of humor and charm. A wonderful small painting, with a brilliant bull-gazelle animal in bright colors, declaring across it “Macondo”, a fictional town described in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was definitely worth purchasing.

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Enjoying a night of art with Luis Martinez del Toro

The third morning in La Guajira meant departure, and a little sadness of leaving so soon this small town with potential as a major Colombian travel destination. If the tourism board can stay on course with its plan to clean up and attract more visit, Riohacha could become as popular as other coastal areas, such as Playa Rodadero.

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gorgeous offerings from Riohacha, including Macondo painting!

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Morning futbol match between mosaic pillars

In the past year, three hostels have opened in the area. The plazas have added more police patrols and the malecon is making great strides to open reputable businesses. Along with the city’s annual celebration of contemporary Vallenato music, Festival Francisco El Hombre, more interest in Riohacha could reduce or even eliminate negative writing and posts about this pretty city along the sea.

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Sweet kitty at Bona Vida Hostel

To end this fantastic to Riohacha: a generous surprise, right-time-right-place offer from Katty’s parents as a passenger for the return drive to Barranquilla, on the same day the Colombian futbol team was playing Bolivia. The five-hour car ride provided an excellent opportunity for reflection, gratitude and inventory from this trip: all the laughter shared, all the delicious treats consumed and, especially, all the amazing crafts purchased in a short but satisfying visit to the beloved Caribbean coast of Colombia.

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Five More Things to Love About Living in Colombia

With this post being written a week into the world feeling “spring forward” effects of an archaic calendar system, it was left out of the recent post Five Things to Love About Living in Colombia that there is no daylight savings time here. We are too close to the equator, plus, really… what are the benefits of this age-old “tradition” in the modern world? The series continues…

Five More Things to Love About Living in Colombia

1. There is No Daylight Savings Time. That’s right, in Colombia, we keep the same time all year, like the Earth naturally does. Here, when you ask someone without a watch what time it is, they will probably glance upward, calculate the sun’s location, and give you a close or near-accurate response.

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About 5:49 pm, in Santa Marta, Magdelena, buena noche

At first, this may seem baffling, but with the day passing free from being one hour ahead of itself (or behind, which some say is great, for the lingering, long days of summer), it makes sense. Not observing Daylight Savings Time seems like one less hassle to put into effect. In Cartagena, we know that most people stop for lunch when the sun is directly overhead, and that the beautiful sunset beyond las murallas of our historic city happens at or around 5:30 pm each day.

Check out this great article by The Verge, titled Daylight Savings Time is Hot Garbage, then have another cup of coffee (preferably Colombian) as you adjust your internal clock to the changes.

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Beauty flying over Colombia, about 6:00 pm

2. Dogs are Everywhere. In Colombia, dogs roam the streets searching for food and sleeping wherever they find space. While this may not seem like something to love for most people, for many it provides relief to a hectic day. It’s been proven that having a pet reduces stress, and even people afraid of dogs can overcome other fears once they make friends with a canine. In Crespo, near the airport, there is an apartment building with a little black dog out front who greets residents and neighbors, and chases police motorcycles for fun (not regular motos, just the police, go figure).

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Look at that happy girl in front of her home, everyone’s dog!

When asked about her owner, the doorman replied, “she belongs to the building.” When asked who feeds her, he responded “we all do.” Although there remains an outstanding number of dogs in the streets, people who know the benefits of having a pet have started to adopt dogs. While there are organizations set up to assist free roaming dogs, it may be several years before Colombia reaches the heights of groups like the ASPCA.  In the meantime, dogs are everywhere, waiting to help relieve your stress.

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“Just chillin’ on my table bed in El Centro…”

3. You Can Buy Just One Egg. Recently a co-worker teased me about my enthusiasm for being able to purchase only one egg at a favorite local store. I explained to her that, in the US, you can usually only buy a half-dozen or whole dozen cold, processed, sometimes overpriced and cruelly-manufactured eggs. For this reason, buying one farm fresh egg at a time feels special, but it’s more than just one egg. It’s one folder for school when you don’t need a box of twenty, or just a few kilos of rice when you aren’t feeding a family of four.

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Eggs on toast, on Club Colombia dishware. Ayy la vida

Large warehouse-type stores like Sam’s Club or Costco feel out of place, or perhaps it’s just the idea of bringing home 40 rolls of paper towels on the bus seems a bit overwhelming. While there is HomeCenter, which is like Home Depot in many cities, and Barranquilla boasts a PriceMart, it could still be years before the concept catches on. Meanwhile, life continues: making progress, one egg purchase at a time.

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Of course, HomeCenter partners with the Colombian Futbol team

4. Pharmacies are Everywhere. In Colombia, pharmacies may be found on nearly every corner, with many stores open 24 hours. If you need stomach relief after too much street food, or a cream to ease the itch from Chinkunguna, there’s no doubt the pharmacies will help you care for your well-being; most pharmacists are knowledgeable and offer quick remedies.

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A sampling of goods from a recent bout of gripa

As shocking news continues elsewhere about the rising cost of health care bills, its interesting to note that a $60 USD prescription (plus a $20 to $40 copay to see a doctor for approval), costs $7 USD in a Colombian pharmacy, sometimes with no Rx required. True, some people may abuse this leisurely method of health care, but honestly, when you can seek immediate help versus waiting in a doctor’s office for a prescription (or to be denied one, or recommended one you can’t afford), isn’t this one thing to love?

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In Barranquilla: La Botica and its “like” logo, across from Farmacia Torres

5. Yellow Shouldered Parrots. While all of South America boasts exotic avian species in an array of colors, sizes and abilities, a common type to keep as a pet in Colombia is the Yellow Crowned Parrot, or Yellow-crowned Parrot from the Amazona ochrocephala group. To know one of these brilliant birds is to be amazed. Quite often you will pass them sitting in or on top of a large cage on a front patio, or peeping out of a household window. They are known to be flirtatious, smart, social creatures. These parrots are keenly aware of those around them, and can perform at a whim, like Lorenzo, the parrot who was arrested in 2010 for assisting drug dealers.

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captured from an awesome video from YouTube user ixoye2k featuring singing birds

If you are fortunate enough to encounter a Yellow Crowned Parrot, approach them carefully. Keep a distance (they have sharp beaks) and encourage them with light conversation, such as “quieres cacao?” (do you want cocoa?). Just be warned: sometimes they can’t stop talking once they start and may even burst into song, to which, of course, dancing is optional.

Bird Curious? Visit the Avian Welfare Coalition website for more information on many types of incredible birds!

So now you know: five more things to love about living in Colombia. While the list continues to grow, keep in mind this is an opinionated piece, and not everyone can handle the awesomeness of buying only one egg . If you’re still searching for more, watch this 2013 video from YouTube user Jeff Galea featuring a catchy soundtrack and magical moments in Colombia.


Five Things to Love About Living in Colombia

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Refajo Cola y Pola: one of many things to love

Just like any place in the world, Colombia has many things about it to love and to not love. Conversely, being a foreigner living abroad, these expressions often accompany limitations (“Will this be the last time I say/do/eat this?”), as well as disparagement (“I can’t wait until I never have to deal with/try to/experience this again”). Usually, each day brings at least one declaration of “This is my favorite [fill in the blank]!” only to be followed later by “What I can’t stand the most is [fill in the blank].” For now, this post is about the positive, with the negative to (possibly) follow in the future.

Five Things to Love About Living in Colombia

1. The Best Fruits and Most Amazing Juices. Imagine a place where lush, colorful tropical fruits, grown in abundance, are harvested daily by local farmers, and made available to you to savor as whole pieces, combined with others in fruit salads, or whirled together with icy water, sipped lovingly through a tall straw. This is the world of fruit and juices in Colombia.

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Awesome fruit poster from 21food.com

With delectable offerings and curious names like guayabana, maracuya, lulo, nispero, uchuva and zapote, it is often difficult to choose just one. Some people make it a habit of drinking fresh juice every day. On a recent visit to the US, eight ounces of fresh-squeezed juice at a restaurant cost $5.00. Here, the average price is $3000 COP, or $1.00 USD, for about 16 ounces. Though tantalizing tropical fruits may not top your list of reasons to come to Colombia, it certainly may be one deliciously-tempting reason.

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Nothing beats a fresh Maracuya juice at home

2. Public Transportation and Easy Travel Options. Many people live in Colombia without owning a car their entire life, never knowing about car payments, insurance payments, gas and maintenance expenses, potential for an accident or sitting in traffic… yet they are able to travel easily where they want or need to go.

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The front says, “Hurry this day”… or maybe Hurry to God?

The public transportation system of Colombia (and many other countries in Latin America), has been around for decades, meeting the needs of commuters with inexpensive options, including daily buses of both inner city and distance routes. Add to this the option for inexpensive taxis, collectivos (shared taxis), moto-taxis, moto-carros, and in some cities even a metro cable system, and it’s easy to see why some people never miss driving (or even want to learn).

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With a favorite Moto Taxista, Anderson, in Pasacaballos. Do you think that helmet is DOT safe?

3. It’s Always Warm (on the Coast). Colombia boasts over 3,208 kilometers (1,993 miles) of coast, from the top of the country in La Guajira to the tip along Chocó near Panamá, lending itself to balmy, sun-filled days and breezy nights in many areas. Of the five regions in Colombia, the Caribbean region boasts an average temperature of  30° C (86° F), although some areas in La Guajira can reach more than 40°C (104° F) at midday.

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Moto service on a hot day outside a shack in La Guajira

While some days living in places like Barranquilla can feel like baking in an huge oven under a wet towel of unforgiving humidity, there is also no snow, no black ice roads, and no digging your sidewalk out from under ten feet after a winter blizzard. Instead, there’s days in tank tops and shorts, taking public transportation with the bus windows open or sitting in the shade, sipping fresh fruit juices. Simply put, for those who hate being cold, the coast of Colombia is a great place to be.

Bright morning sun: another hot day on the coast

Bright morning sun: another hot day on the coast

4. 18 Holidays a Year (Life Itself is a Celebration). In a wonderful video made by Colombia Unknown ©2015, the two filmmakers from Bogotá mention that the country has eighteen holidays, possibly one explanation why the people are considered the happiest in the world: because there is always a reason to celebrate or take time off. Although TimeandDate.com shows Colombia as having thirty-eight holidays, many of these have only recently been adapted, like Valentine’s day or the June Solstice.

More popular days include Dia de la Madre (Mother’s Day), Dia de la Mujer (Women’s Day) as well as some regional days that are celebrated in their origins, such as the Battle of Boyacá and the Independencia of Cartagena. Whatever the day off brings you, from time off to relax at the beach or simply closing your business to spend time with family, Colombians happily embrace their holidays and make the most of the day.

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Celelbrating dia del Idioma – language day, hooray!

5. The Most Delicious Coffee in the World. Real Colombia coffee has a flavor that is distinct and aromatic, a delicious treat that must be tasted (and experienced) in order to be truly appreciated. Colombians drink coffee throughout the day, most often served black, in little cups with several spoonfuls of sugar. This drink is called tinto, and once you taste it, you may never think the same about your Starbucks dark roast. You can find coffee in tiendas (corner stores), at business meetings, and even peddled in the street by guys carrying thermoses full of its dark delight.

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Coffee selection in US grocery store… what, no Café Córdoba?

Nearly all coffee lovers of the world have heard of Juan Valdez, the fictional icon created in 1958 by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, who brought an international interest to the country with his swagger and expertise. While his most popular reign was on television commercials during the 1970’s and 1980’s, Juan Valdez lives on today in cafés throughout Colombia and other countries, including the US (hooray Miami and New York!). Whatever the production, and however it is prepared and promoted, most people agree the flavor of true Colombian coffee is superior to all others.

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An oasis in the Miami Airport: ¡Mi gente!

So now you know: five things to love about living in Colombia. While there are dozens more where these come from, as well as some things to not love, this list will hopefully entice you to discover more about this amazing country. If you’re still searching for facts and ideas, watch this awesome video from 2015 by CNN about the changes happening in Colombia (including more great public transportation).


Playas, Parque Tayrona, Patacóns y Más

Colombia patria querida, te llevo en mi corazón
Tu tienes la llave de mi corazón, yo te quiero más que a mi vida,

La Tierra del Olvido, Carlos Vives

Colombia beloved homeland, take you in my heart
You have the key to my heart, I love you more than life

A recent post about air travel and airports mentioned plenty of details including the service, the hours and the miles logged – but left out an important element: the other travelers. Waiting for Delta Airlines flight 989 from Atlanta to Cartagena, I met Luis Mario, a student at San Diego State University, traveling to my beloved adopted country for twenty days in the New Year.

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Good Morning, Atlanta! The best is just ahead for these travelers…

After sharing a seat row, and conversing about the beauty and growing economy in Colombia, we exchanged numbers and parted, meeting three days later to begin an adventure along the coast. Street smart, bilingual and expedition savvy, Luis was a great travel partner who added humor to and deducted worry from an unplanned route of the Caribbean Coast: Santa Marta, Taganga, Playa el Rodadero and Parque Tayrona.

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Our map of travel

Plan to Not Have a Plan

Leaving from the Berlinas bus station ($40000 COP) in the Marbella neighborhood, we arrived in Santa Marta to find all the hostels and affordable hotels sold out. We tried Playa el Rodadero – same thing. Finally, using the free WIFI at Juan Valdez Café on Parque Simón Bolivár, we booked a night stay ($25000 COP) at Casa Buho Del Paraiso in Taganga, taking the short combi ride over the mountain after watching the sunset near Paseo Bastidas.

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Beautiful Santa Marta at Sunset

Casa Buho was just as it appeared online: colorful, rustic, inexpensive and accommodating. The simple decor, leisurely hammocks, and wooden terraces overlooking Taganga, justified the steep climb up an unpaved road. The hostel felt like the right choice for a week of backpacking along the coast, and learning a new words (mochillero – backpacker) along the way.

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These kids were diving for spiny sea creatures in the bay

During a previous visit to Taganga, a taco stand was remembered along the waterfront of the town, which is basically the main strip of this small fishing village. Excited to taste a handmade corn tortilla with pico de gallo, guacamole, fresh fish and cabbage slaw, the results turned out to be futile compared to what was expected; for $7000 COP, the taco was definitely not worth the anticipation.

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Your taco will be ready… next Wednesday…

When I briefly suggested I cancel my order of the slowest made taco on the Colombian coast, Luis reminded me a good rule of street-food etiquette: “he started cooking it, so you may as well let him finish and then pay.” Admittedly, we both were disappointed in the tacos and quickly soothed our sadness with a savory $2000 arepa con queso several minutes later.

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Travel Partners at Sensation with Sweden and Bogotá

Plans of a restful night were thwarted by three attractive Swedish girls traveling together from their current locations – México, Peru and Chile. After watching their hilarious pantomime of getting ready for the evening, it took little convincing for us to join them at a nearby discoteca, Sensation. Here, vacationers and locals danced uninhibitedly under the night sky as glittery lights swirled to the suave girl DJ’s mix of House, Champeta and Reggaeton.

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Good Morning, Taganga

The next morning, we headed for Playa el Rodadero, a favorite spot in Magdalena for a sunny weather, and spent the day indulging in cocada (coconut treats) and watching huge crowds fill the tarpas (shady square tents) while we elected to rest under tall palms.

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Traffic on the bus ride through Gaira to Rodadero

A delicious afternoon lunch at Patacón Americano confirmed, once again, that the culinary delights of Colombia continue to go underrated in other parts of the world. Finally, a late-night combi transported weary beach-goers home from their destinations.

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Patacón con verduras! Love at first bite

Before sleeping another evening at Casa Buho, we phoned Parque Tayrona at the suggestion of José Luis from Doxa Tours, who we met on the bus riding through Giari to Rodadero. The phone call confirmed that the park was experiencing heavier-than-normal crowds, with double the volume at this peak holiday season.

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Holy park pass holders, that’s a long line

Collectivo Milagro

Determined to hike and sleep a night, we woke at 4:30 am with a plan to catch the city bus. Waiting in the dark on the main road to Taganga, a collective stopped, “Parque Tayrona? You’ll never get there by bus, it takes too long! Collectivo, collectivo,” the driver shouted to us in Spanish, “$15000 each!” We thought about it for a split second before hopping in.

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YAY we made it!

On the way, we picked up Benjamin and Anja, two blonde, blue-eyed Germans venturing through South America and also destined for the park. The driver raced along Highway 90 so fast, passing cars along curves and tailgating furiously, that at one point, Anja covered her eyes and appeared to be praying.

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Damn! Another line inside the gate

Fortunately, we arrived alive, only to face a long line of people already waiting to enter the park. The line moved quickly and we were relieved to get in; after paying admission prices ($37900 COP for me, an extranjera, and $8000 COP for Luis, a student – stay in school, kids!) we took a short bus ride into the park and were set free to hike. And hike we did, for what seemed like a long long, time (about two and a half hours).

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Donde Lili delicioso!

Benjamin and Anja left us in the sweet dirt of Tayrona on their own agenda, as we cavorted up canyon rocks, along man-made wooden paths, and across sandy coves riddled with empty coconut shells. Stopping briefly, we enjoyed a lunch of comida tipica (fried fish, patacón, rice and salad) at Donde Lili, before continuing on to Cabo San Juan, where we found yet another line, this time for overnight hammocks and tents.

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Tents. Not for us.

Waiting in the hot sun, we worked up a thirst (literally) for the beach and, after being twenty hammocks away from not staying the night, we were ushered to an enormous sleeping lodge with open walls, a sand floor and a thick, thatched roof of palm leaves. Colorful hammocks swung for several meters, lined in neat rows of multicolored canvas.

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ahhh here we go… Puebla de las Hamacas

… El Parque Finalmente!

The beach of Cabo San Juan is truly picturesque, albeit a bit small. After taking obligatory “we made it” photos, and swapping sweat-drenched clothes for swimsuits, Luis and I found our way to the beach and came to rest on it’s grainy, toasted-corn colored sand.

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This Turkish guy was reading an English version of A Catcher in The Rye. LOVE!

After several minutes of decompressing our tired bones, glancing waywardly at the brilliant aqua waves lapping at the shore, we stared backwards and overhead at the tall palms blowing in the afternoon breeze, agreeing it was breathtaking, and truly worth every step of the hike.

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Ayyy Tayrona! you are so pretty!

Night fell quickly with it came the sounds, sights and smells of a remote national park. Strange birds and animals cooed and cawed against the blanket of stars overhead.  Surprisingly, there were four bathrooms to service this popular and heavily-visited area. Yes, just four bathrooms, for what must be well over four-hundred people a night. No doubt the trees have seen their fair share of squats, which is difficult to picture with such lush and lovely greenery.

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This Irish bloke helped me out with the morning breezes

The next morning, being careful not to wake the three grumpy, sarcastic Australian girls the next hammocks over, an early rise to bypass the long queue for the bathrooms was successful, and also included a shower in the common-but-divided-by-concrete unisex bathing area.

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Quiet Cabo San Juan at Sunset

A walk out to the cove revealed an empty beach with a rising sun, and an easy ascension up a small, rocky cliff to an open-walled cabaña with more multicolored hammocks (VIP overnight?)

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VIP Hamaca cabaña arriba! Imagine sleeping up there

Having only the morning to savor Cabo San Juan, breakfast in the dining area was leisurely and tasty at a slightly-high price ($10000 COP scrambled eggs, 2 arepas, and café tinto): much-needed nourishment for the day hike back.

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From the deck of the VIP Hamaca Cabaña. Buena vista!

Koji and the Coconuts

Following the same two-and-a-half-hour hike, we came upon a kid we had passed on the way in: a small Koji tribe boy wielding a machete that seemed as tall as he was, slicing open green coconuts pulled from a burlap bag. “Agua de Coco,” he said briskly as parched hikers passed. We indulged, and the natural coconut nectar was well worth the $3000.

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The coconut kid and his giant machete

Handing back the coconut to savor the meat inside, the kid quickly hacked the hard shell in half, almost effortlessly, his tiny muscular arms adept at every motion. Incredible. We figured if he sells ten $3000 coconuts an hour, he’s made more money than some people make in a day. A cottage industry on steroids, or in this case, on the natural high of fresh coconut water.

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About to hand my coconut back for the machete WHACK!

Arriving to the parking area exhausted, blistered, and a little sunburned, the combi back to the park entrance was a welcomed sight to see. From here, the return seemed easy, with each bus arriving within minutes of waiting, and the transition from Tayrona to Santa Marta to Barranquilla and finally arriving in Cartagena, only six hours since starting out.

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Making new friends and telling bad jokes before we leave the park

Having been in Colombia for two years, this trip along its amazing coast was a journey well 0verdue; one more strike on the bucket list that feels satisfying and rewarding, much like the opportunity to live in this beautiful country.

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My super-awesome travel partner Luis! Thanks for a great trip with you

Updated 24 January: Luis Mario has posted an awesome video about his visit to Colombia! You can watch it here or click below


2015 Air Travel: Fly the Friendly Sighs

Note: A post in October about lifelong friends brought comments and questions from the far corners of the world… mostly California. While much has changed, it appears there is always room for the relationships that matter, and the ones that have fallen away to be revived. Simply put, life shifts. If we have a plan in place and make strides towards success, life sometimes moves to accommodate the differences, including those to whom we relate, no matter how far the distance.

Earning My Wings

A month without writing compares sparingly to three months flying from Colombia to the US and back. Celebrations, events, and of course, the holidays, with a visit to the Colombian Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia. This being a second annual visit to the office in Sandy Springs, it felt a bit like living in South America: getting easier with each year.

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Hello Hudson River, New York!

With the mention of flying, gratitude resounds from a year that flew by. Professionally, continuing to enjoy work as an educator at a fantastic school in South America: developing skills as a teacher of ICT, and super-nerding-out at home to videos about microprocessors and ViewMaster in 3D.

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With my awesome gringa co-teachers at Aspaen GCI

Personally, many moments with others worth recalling. Three family weddings. The birth of an adorable nephew. Reconnecting with former classmates, and conversing with new people during lengthy air travel.

Friends since childhood… they are all so beautiful!

Entertaining guests who visited and appeared to delight in Colombia’s 481-year-old city. Making fun, new friends on Friday night Chiva tours. Reveling in the proof that sharing joy with others is usually reciprocal – what you give is often returned.

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Love these Chiva party-people!

Stats needed, STAT

But back to the three months of flying. Living close to the Cartagena airport is beneficial to this life. Hearing planes take off overhead evokes the idea that someone is on their way to a new location. Watching travelers arrive and depart is both enlightening… and exhausting. Calculating notes from a well-appreciated AAdvantage frequent flyer account, since June these are some interesting statistics:

Distance flown: approximately 11, 716 miles/ 18,855 km (thanks, WebFlyer!)
Airlines flown: Avianca, American Airlines, United (US Airways), Delta
Airports visited for flight connections: 8 (but it felt like 15)
Airports visited: Cartagena (CTG), Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Houston (IAH), Atlanta (ATL), Charlotte (CLT), Charleston (CHS), Baltimore-Washington (BWI) airport codes are awesome
Shortest layover: 35 minutes, spent sprinting in FLL between two very distant gates
Longest layover: 15 hours, spent sleeping in a nice hotel near the ATL airport
Hours spent in air travel: approximately 54 (guessing… it always feels like more)
Cost of checked bags: $0.00 (thanks, American Airlines!)

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Avianca, let’s do this!

Gracias a Díos

These stats are both staggering and hilarious, with sheer gratitude given to the Airline Gods who ensured, like a holiday wish come true, that each flight was as uneventful as the last and well-deserving of thanks:

For checked luggage that was never lost. For some airlines serving meals (Avianca – a hot meal – always so classy) and all airlines serving complimentary drinks and snacks. For flight attendants being continuously helpful and cheerful, even offering free warm face towels (thanks, Delta!) to both first and economy class. For current on-board magazines, including the beautifully-designed Revista Avianca and American Airline’s wonderful Spanish and Portugués publication, Nexos, rich with intriguing articles.

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A row all to myself and my favorite magazines, woot!

For check-in counters that were busy but moving swiftly and security lines that were long but well-organized. And, finally, for only one TSA agent who seemed aggravated during a pat-down, when the underwire of my bra poked out like a weapon. “Miss, I recommend you visit the nearest rest room and remedy the situation,” a firm but polite inspector said. Noted, sir. (Ma’am?)

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New Friends at Fleet Landing in Charleston SC

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. – Henry Ford, American Businessman, 1863 – 1947

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Celebrating my return home with Jugo de Maracuya!

As the final flight of 2015 Travel, from Atlanta to Cartagena, landed in Rafael Núñez International Airport on January 1st, 2016 (15-hour layover, started in 2015!), stars were thanked and blessings counted, following a cliché New Year’s Eve not quite worth remembering. Hopefully for everyone, the year ahead holds greatness and a promise to stay on course, even through life’s bumpy turbulence and changes in (personal) atmospheric pressure.


Lifelong Friends Pick Up

You’re the first one, when things turn out bad
You know I’ll never be lonely, you’re my only one
And I love the things, I really love the things that you do
Ooh you’re my best friend

Queen – You’re My Best Friend, 1976

Living abroad has it’s share of excitement, joys, adventures and plenty of reason for gratitude and reflection; as with most busy lives, each morning brings something new. With the lingering idea that time in a current city could be cut short at any moment, it definitely encourages those living away from their native country, as well as those who frequently travel, to fulfill the adage and seize the day.

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December 2014: with a Meetup.com group in Charleston: Instant, wonderful new friends

A recent blog post by travel expert and author Matthew Kepnes, also known as Nomadic Matt, titled Travel and the Art of Losing Friends, caused reflections over the past three years about what makes friendship real. A second article from Matt’s website on How to Deal With Unsupportive Friends and Family, made it seem like, finally, someone else understands what my life is like most days; thanks, Matt, for this and more.

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My mom is a great friend. South of the Border, October 2015

Family and Friends

Fortunately, nearly everyone in my family has been tremendously supportive of my life in Colombia. With frequent visits to the US, fantastic advances in technology – like video chat and instant messaging – and their excitement of receiving beautiful, unique gifts from Colombia, my family has given me unconditional love and support; for this I am very grateful. Additionally, I thank God for the people of Colombia who have accepted me as their friend.

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Enjoying coffee with a beautiful (inside and out) friend in Barranquilla

Colombians who invite me to their homes, email me funny memes (some, admittedly, I don’t understand), and, when I was recently quite ill and home from school, send daily text messages and phone calls of prayers for a fast recovery. Some friends, however, leave many thoughts awash in the sea of wonder about what friendship really means.

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Since taking the leap to live far from my roots, some lifelong friends have become more distant than is easy to admit. Of course, there are many loyal allies with whom to share stories, ask opinions, and divulge secrets. Real friends will forever be there, stepping in to recall where you left off, and continue on with the greatness we call friendship. Anytime you and a friend can pick up on your relationship without missing a beat, even if you have spent years away from each other, that is true friendship.

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My friend since age 7. We always pick up where we left off.

When returning to the US, I nearly always try to contact people and make time to meet with them. On some occasions, this is limited to a phone call, but the effort is there and the intention is sincere.  As Matt mentions in his article, the traveler’s return to a past city, reaching out to others, trying to get together for lunch or to just catch up, often begins to get more and more difficult to achieve. It’s disheartening to see friends rolls their eyes each time you start a sentence with “where I live…”, or blatantly change the subject when you (once again) mention the wonderful food/music/people/culture of the place you currently call home.

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We picked up after 20 years apart. She’s an amazing friend.

Friendship Sets Sail

People who once laughed over dumb facts with you, or couldn’t wait to tell you about their crazy day, slowly stop replying to emails, or forward neutral bits of news that isn’t relative. They read your instant messages and respond with obligatory, one-word answers. Suddenly, the people who once wanted you to “crash on their couch” or jokingly begged you to “commandeer the guest quarters” are now “overwhelmed with work” or “redecorating the spare room,” ironically on the same days you have to catch up during your brief stay in town.

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My new friends are now also new friends. Heart. Full.

Regardless of the size of their home, a true friend will make room for you to stay. Born in the summer, my astrological sign is one of “a loyal and faithful friend, a person able to use their mind to solve even the most difficult problems and take the initiative in solving various complicated situations.” While there is also a list of more unappealing traits, the ones that remain precise are those of friendship and loyalty, which may also explain why we sometimes stay too long in a situation that has gone wrong, hoping it will change.

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These WorldTeach Colombia 2014 volunteer alumnis are two of the best friends a girl living abroad could want. Keep going and remember to laugh!

Sadly, not many friends have wanted to come and visit Colombia. In fact, of the ones that still keep in touch, most are busy, working hard, with a standard vacation of about two weeks, during which time they want to visit their family over friends. Who could blame them, if their family is like mine? (Supportive, happy, loving.)

Friends Float Away

The opening song to the classic television show The Golden Girls, starts out:

Thank you for being a friend
Traveled down the road and back again
Your heart is true your a pal and a confidant.

However, most people don’t know the way the song ends, which is grim but also bittersweet.

And when we both get older
With walking canes and hair of gray
Have no fear even though it’s hard to hear
I will stand real close and say
Thank you for being a friend

And when we die, and float away
Into the night, the Milky Way
You’ll hear me call, as we ascend
I’ll say your name, then once again

Sung by the talented Andrew Gold, who had a flourishing career as a singer-songwriter of such hits as Lonely Boy (another song with lyrics that skim the soul’s surface), the part about “and when we die” is sung with an ethereal echo and eerie reverberation of Gold’s voice, as if he knows how deep true friendship goes, or perhaps what happens when someone moves across the ocean in search of a different life… only to wonder what happened to all those friends.

As the topic of friendship continues to simmer on the back burner of a tiny apartment stove with new thoughts, including the fade out of communication, sometimes referred to as “ghosting,” I am beginning to ask myself the same questions Nomadic Matt has about living abroad: does it end the bond between you and your friends, or does it simply show who your true friends are?


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Insta Karma

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Virtual hugs. Cyber crushes. Emojis and emoticons. In this global age, teaching Information Communications Technology may be one of the most enlightening experiences, and definitely one of the most challenging. In my classes at Aspaen Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias, we often discuss topics like the evolution of social media, and when updates to existing applications improve the app or just make it more complicated.

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Aw, bottom right, they cut off the cute “poo” emoji

Students debates frequently turn to social media and interactions, like live versus virtual “relationships,” and when to know if an online network is benefiting your needs or draining them (good v. bad). As a teacher and a writer, I value the opinions of these digital natives and enjoy learning from their technology-absorbing minds, while also reminding them there’s no substitute quite yet for the human touch.

It’s been said that kids will tell you what’s hip and what’s not without even being asked. Aside from occasional adorable new baby photos and amazing dog rescue news, it seems Facebook, for many users, has gone the way of gossip, political rants and weather reports. It’s easy see why today’s teens think the once world-dominating social network is now for old people (i.e. anyone over the age of 30).

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The page exists, but I rarely post anything.

While it appears more businesses and community organizations are enjoying the benefits of Facebook pages, it seems young people find it lackluster as a means of communicating and staying current, electing instead to utilize apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

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An awesome sense of humor… and more

A few weeks ago, at a friend’s suggestion, I tried Snapchat, only to find it redundant, with it’s 10 second videos and goofy text-on-image photo sharing. After reading an amusing article about the target age for Snapchat, and growing impatient with it’s color-changing ghost, I deleted it without regret. For the past few years, my preferred app for chat has been Whatsapp. Despite the new addition of Whatsapp’s hit-or-miss free phone service, from Lima to London, the chat continues to work well for keeping in touch with friends around the globe.

hmmm.. coincidence? or luck..?

Conversely, Instagram appears to be an application worth it’s weight in virtual show-and-tell. Since its release a little over four years ago, this app has captivated millions of users with its photo and video posts, and options to like, comment and share.

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Instagram connects people from around the world in all walks of life, including photographers, writers, volunteers, magazines, community organizations, teachers and friends. Although it recently has been called a “body image battleground,” when used in moderation, Instagram is also like a visual playground, ripe with variety in users, locations and vocations.

Benedict College
A few months ago, searching for information on university-level exchange programs from the US to Colombia, I read about twin brothers Ravonne and Ramonne Pious from Columbia, South Carolina, who studied at La Universidad de La Guajira in Riohacha, Colombia. Inspired and motivated by their story, I shared it with my family, bookmarked the page, and referred back to it for details on what US Citizens are discovering the beloved coast of South America has to offer.

Ravonne Insta

Fast-forward to the first week of October when Ravonne, one of the twins, and I exchanged introductions, first over Instagram direct message, then Whatsapp, sharing ideas on travel-teaching,  diversified learning, and most of all, our appreciation for the incomparable culture of Colombia. Having recently been accepted for a year in Ecuador with my former volunteer program WorldTeach, Ravonne will surely thrive during his 2016 volunteer service, and hopefully make many posts to Instagram.

Instagram has doorways to dynamic groups in Colombia, like Baqsemueve, promoting growth in Barranquilla, Colombia, or Loves_America, who features incredible photos of North, South and Latin Americas. During a recent encounter with El Universal in Cartagena to support the campaign Dilo! Cartagena es lo Maximo – promoting reasons why Cartagena is the “maximum” – it was hard to resist enthusiastically expressing my love for this beautiful city.

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With Global Perspectives teacher Irene at GCI, Dilo!

Currently, the 9th and 11th grade classes of Aspaen Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias are participating in a project which focuses on the citizens of their city, with one class under the Instagram ID @humansofctg and the other class under @humansofcartagena. The photos follow the lead from Humans of New York: an organization that went from Facebook posts and a Tumblr feed to  millions of followers and the publication of an informative, vivid printed book.

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Could these students illicit attention with their campaigns? It’s absolutely possible. When learning is conducive to connecting with others, the world suddenly seems limitless.

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While its still true few things compare to actual human touch and interaction, meeting people in it’s far corners of the Earth is working wonders to open the eyes, mind and heart of this traveling teacher far more than Facebook ever did, and in a much cooler, non-old person way.


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Right for Right Now

This week I received an email from my past volunteer organization, WorldTeach, asking for contributions to their alumni page. Having been recently featured on Lillie Marshall’s website, TeachingTraveling.com, I replied with fervor, and was selected as the September alumni feature on the Worldeach.org website: an awesome opportunity as well as an honor.

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While it’s only right to admit my year in Barranquilla as a volunteer with WorldTeach Colombia 2014 was not easy, I managed to fulfill the promise of a year commitment.  Getting lost on the buses that connect the 4th largest city in Colombia, living in a bad first host situation, and struggling to understand Costeño accents were just a few of my every day challenges.

A celebratory time in La Arenosa. Collage ©2014

But I refused to give up. Instead of focusing on the bad, I channeled my energy towards the good, including a love for this beautiful country and it’s wonderful people, which in turn became a decision to remain on the coast even after a difficult first year. It’s as if my relationship with Colombia deserved one more chance for us both to get it right.

Un dia sola en la playa. Prado Mar, Atlántico June 2014.

As a foreign teacher in a diverse country, living a continent away from family and friends, internal questions occasionally arise, such as “how did I end up here?” and “what am I doing with my life?” to the even deeper, “is teaching in Colombia what I was born to do?”

In my heart, I long to be a travel writer, making a great life by traveling to locations and reporting on intriguing parts of the world. I focus on this idea and take positive steps each day to move in that direction. I know the day will come when I am sitting next to Richard Branson in first class, sipping champagne and comparing notes on making better lists, but until then, I’m doing my best to teach computers and English to delightful, energetic teenage girls. And I love it.

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So easy to love this man! Image: Travellovelive.com

Sometimes life makes us wonder what we are doing, which is really a way to find what makes you happy and focus on it. If you feel some part of your existence is lacking, perhaps it is best to start by simply appreciating what you have, allowing the rest to wash around you and help you realize things are fine. Some thoughts may keep you awake at night, or nag your conscience when you are sitting through yet another conference on classroom management, but if you allow yourself to find and accept one thing that works well, then it often becomes easier to concentrate on what else you want to do.

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Words of wisdom. Charleston, SC Summer 2015

There are many websites based around this idea, along with some wonderful, inspiring quotes. Some of them are deep and philosophical, while others are simply focused on being happy right now. It seems the basic theme for them all is don’t panic, stay focused and keep going. You might be surprised at how things will fall into place if you simply guide them there.

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Sweet quote from Anna G. on Pinterest

As for me, I am still visualizing that conversation in first class, where I hope the CEO of Virgin Airlines and I can share a few laughs as well as talk business. But for now, I’m here, in Cartagena de Indias, teaching twenty classes a week and surprising myself every day. While some parts of my life remain to be said – with loftier achievements attained and goals marked on the bucket list as “done” –  this one, for sure, feels right for right now.

kd-board

August 2015: Right for right now.


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Extraordinary rewards: teachingtraveling.com

It’s been another fast week in La Fantastica, as daily life returns following a long summer vacation. While the students have not arrived at school, the teachers are back in full force, staying busy with hours of workshops, meetings and lesson planning.

Enrique + oblejas. = no stress for this teacher

In addition to being back in teacher mode, I am thriving in writer mode, receiving a humbling gift this week in the form of an interview on Lillie Marshall’s amazing website, Teaching Traveling.

My first birthday at work in years. I love my school!

I became a fan of Lillie’s informative website, as well as her exciting travel site, Around the World L, while searching for TEFL schools back in 2012. From Boston to Asia to wedding and now baby, I have followed her advice and adventures faithfully on both sites over the past three years.

Lillie would probably love these 3-D globes and philosophers

I reached out to Lillie via email around October 2014, sending a message about my volunteer work with WorldTeach and Volunteers Colombia, and she responded with interest, sending a series of questions to answer in detail.

dream-by-day

Read. Apply. Repeat.

It took me several weeks (and many revisions) to complete the questions. After submitting them, Lillie graciously replied. With several interviews lined up, as well as two popular websites to maintain and travel to plan, I knew it could take months to post. I waited, patient but eager.

With my 4th graders in Barranquilla. One of many sports days!

Finally, Lillie and I emailed each other this week about posting the interview. We made a few edits, and the finished article is finally on the site. After reading  and sharing it with family and friends, the post on TeachingTraveling definitely feels well worth the wait.

What I read when I’m not reading literature or textbooks

I am so grateful for this moment to shine and hopefully inspire others who are thinking of teaching and traveling, or who are already living a lifestyle similar to mine. While it has its share of challenging decisions and questionable ideas, the rewards of this not-so-ordinary life are usually, well, extraordinary.

Thank you, Lillie, for this incredible opportunity to be a part of teachingtraveling.com!

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My beautiful 5th graders in Barranquilla, “graduating” into high school


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Home Sweet (Soul) Home

The moon is on my side, I have no reason to run
So will someone come and carry me home tonight
– FUN “Carry Me Home” 2011

At the beginning of summer I posted about the nine lives tragically lost in a senseless shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, as well as the city’s strange  similarities to Cartagena de Indias, the pretty place I currently call home.

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My little Colombian flag and a note from Cartagena to Emanuel AME church

After spending nearly a month in Charleston (plus a five-day mini trip to upstate New York), and now being back in the heat and hola of coastal Colombia, I can honestly say the difference is not the same. While architecture bears similarities, humidity draws sweaty comparisons and horse-drawn coches share a kindred sentiment, these things are probably all that resonates on the surface of being alike.

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Two words: surreal and bittersweet.

Traveling to the US on the day that Colombia played Perú in the Copa Americá 2015, I wriggled in my pleather air seat watching the partido on satellite delay, and joined in sorrowful awwws by other passengers as the game came to an end just before landing.

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Franklin from Bogotá: photobomb from one seat back

The days of missing Colombia while in Charleston wafted in and out like a teacher sleeping late for several mornings in a row: dreamy, but somehow not quite logical. Several nights after meeting, DJ Luigi, a Caleño who has organized Charleston’s Latin Groove and DJ’d at events since 2000, gathered a group of Charleston-based Colombian futbol fans at an outdoor eatery to watch the Copa America partido against Argentina. Surrounded by supporters swathed in yellow jerseys, the supporters of the seleccíon cheered from far away, despite the sorrow as Argentina won 5-4 on penalties.

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Con DJ Luigi de Latin Grooves Charleston

Months before visiting Charleston, I reached out on social media to several businesses and organizations, hoping to make some new connections with while laying low in the Lowcountry.

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Inside Pearl with the amazing Karen from Sweet Lulu’s Bakery on Wheels

Although my attempts to work with an arepa food truck were inconclusive, other independent businesses like Sweet LuLu’s Bakery on Wheels and Art Board Co. resulted in enthusiastic smiles, warm hugs and excited conversation about creative ventures, as if we’d been friends for years.

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I waited months for this moment! Thank you Missy!

While the pangs of missing Colombia often ran strong, they definitely subsided during a visit to the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, enjoying the friendly espiritu of these entrepreneurs.

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With Cynthia, Clara, Myriam and Bryan of my new Meetup group

Another wonderful connection, made through MeetUp.com, was with the Mount Pleasant Learn English as a Second Language group. As far back as March 2015, the organizer Myriam sent friendly text messages on everything from easy translation tricks to the awesomeness of arepas. When it came time to meet the group, I felt an instant connection of what hopefully will be a lasting friendship… even if it means “attending” monthly meetups via video chat.

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Surf’s Up on Folly Beach

The days of June and July melted together like a double-scoop in a waffle cone on a hot day. Memorable events included an entire day at Folly beach with a childhood friend watching kids at Shaka Surf School, eating tuna nachos at Rita’s Seaside Grille and winning tickets to a Charleston Riverdogs game just for wearing a shark costume next to a giant crab.

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Gimme those free tickets! YEAH!

Another day, after devouring a delicious lunch at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina, one BFF and I drove her James Bond car to TJ Maxx, where we laughed our way through the clearance shelves, perusing half-filled bottles of bubble bath and questionable tchochkes (like a badly-chipped weiner dog ring holder). Sometimes simple humor can make a daytime outing feel like pure bliss.

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The stash of Colombian food packed in one suitcase for travel

As the days passed, consuming copious amounts of shrimp and grits, boiled peanuts and sweet tea (so as to get a true fill of Southern food, y’all) equaled but did not surpass heavy cravings for fresh-squeezed maracuya, salty-sweet patacones, or  creamy, gooey arequipe. Staying up to date on la tierra madre adoptiva meant following daily Instagram posts from elheraldo and colombia_an_unknown_paradise just to catch glimpses of sunsets and the latest street art.

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Look at that charming little main street

On a five-day visit to upstate New York to visit family and celebrate an upcoming wedding, it was hard to resist indulgences with 30-something nieces and nephews who educated me on the many sizes of Starbucks cups, why Sriracha surpasses ketchup as a condiment, and the benefits of breastfeeding beyond age one. (Yep!)

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With my sister’s giant and tiny family dogs

As  green mountains whizzed past car windows to a Tom Petty soundtrack, the sense of wonder and contemplating what makes a place feel like home wafted through the air vents, accompanied by the smell of fresh-baked Cinnabon from the NY Thruway rest area.

Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

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Beautiful blue waters: Flying over Cuba, near Cayo Coco, towards Colombia

Several days later, flying to Cartagena and making the definitive route south of The South, the idea of home began to really sink in. Phrases like “home is where the heart is,” “home is where you hang your hat,” or the eco-provoking variations on “if you want to be where the grass is greener, water your own grass,” the resounding truth is that home is where you want it to be: the place that feels right for you, a place that’s good for the soul.

Just like some people have a soul mate, it seems possible to have a soul home, a place that  gives you comfort, joy, content and challenge all at once. While it may not be where you grew up, or filled with lifelong friends, this is the place where you feel happiest simply existing in each day. A place where you build on what you’ve created and miss in your heart when you are away.

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Colombia, for now, certainly feels like Home Sweet Soul Home… made just a little más dulce with a swirl of arequipe…. or a refreshing maracuya raspado enjoyed on the beach.


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The Difference is the Same

“Every individual matters. Every individual makes a difference.”
― Jane Goodall (British athropologist, b. 1934)

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One of my favorite views: Plaza San Teresa, in front of Hotel Charleston

To some, living as a foreigner in Cartagena de Indias may seem like permanent vacation: living five minutes from the beach, exploring centuries-old churches and historic landmarks, dancing to live music in a plaza lit by candles at dusk. Yes, this is everyday life here and in many ways, it’s like living anywhere. You get used to things as they are. You shop at the same stores. You stop and say hello to friends on the street. You make repeat visits to the same juice place.

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Never gets old: the gorgeous torre del reloj, the clock tower

Yet somehow, often, it still feels special. With a currently-limitless deadline in Cartagena, enjoying picturesque sunsets over ancient stone walls and eating handmade arepas con queso from a cart, it is easy to see how not even the smallest detail is taken for granted.

alberto-arepa

Alberto makes the best arepas in Centro!

Details like feeling blessed to see the same people each day and being constantly grateful for the diversity that exists. Watching the young people selling coffee who stop and talk with the old men through their fences. Listening to the grandmotherly neighbor who insists on everyone’s clothes on the shared line being hung inside out so they don’t fade.

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ensalada de frutas, served with a smile

The rotund, smiling lady on the beach, who offers fresh piña samples, even though she knows you have already tasted (twice) what she is offering in her ensalada de fruta. For all these things and more, gratitude for even the smallest of details is plentiful.

teatro

Charleston? Nope, Cartagena.

While Cartagena is starting to feel like home, there is one city to which there will always be a connection: Charleston, SC, where I lived as a young girl. Often, it seems the similarities in Cartagena and Charleston are part of what enticed me to move here in January 2015.

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Gorgeous colors of.. Charleston? No… Cartagena!

Both cities have a colorful, colonial downtown with a dark, historic battle-torn wall and horse-drawn carriages still making the rounds on cobblestone streets. Both also rely (and thrive) heavily on tourism, and both are notorious for their sweltering heat and humidity.

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If it weren’t for the hotel sign in Español, this could be Charleston

Sometimes, at the sound of a coche passing, I close my eyes and rapidly open them to wonder, momentarily, in which city I am living. For this, it is both ironic and devastating that, while I cheered on Colombia in their first Copa América victory over Brasil, nine people were killed in the American Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston.

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OK this one is Charleston, SC

Innocent victims, who had gathered for bible study, gunned down by a terrifying racist with no remorse. While one side of my heart was swelling with pride from a well-earned victory, the other side was aching with pain for the families of a loving community.

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The original Bella Artes in San Diego, Cartagena

Living as an extranjera in Colombia for the past year-and-a-half, I have endured plenty of full-on stares, inappropriate questions, and the occasional “invisible” treatment. But I’ve never felt segregated because of the color of my skin. It seems that every person here is every color, meaning it is hard to tell where one color ends and the other begins.

Gis and Tomás resemble twins James and Daniel Kelly

Gis and Tomás resemble twins James and Daniel Kelly

My friend Gis has rich, creamy dark brown skin. His brother Tomás, born of the same parents, has light, milky-beige skin with tan freckles. Both are beautiful in their own way and, still, they look nothing alike. Yet they are born of the same blood. As we all are… somewhere…deep down.  We all exist the same in this world, together, even if we’re born looking very different for one another.

prayforcharleston

I haven’t lived full-time in the US for a few years. Reading news headlines and listening to responses to the shooting, I felt helpless living abroad, far away in a seemingly-twin sister city. Hearing about the week’s events, thinking of the senseless hatred from one terrible person that took the lives of nine beloved others, there was nothing to do but pray.

But while it seems just one act of violence can undo years of progress and change, the people of Charleston are proving that this is not something that will tear them apart. They are rallying together to fight hatred; some are even forgiving the shooter and moving on.

Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.
 – Desmond Tutu (South African leader, born 1931)

As my upcoming travels take me flying at the same hour of the Copa América game between Colombia and Perú, my heart will definitely be in two places: up in the air with my seleccíon, and soaring among angels from American Methodist Episcopalian.

flight-wings


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La Chiva pa’ La Gringa

It’s probably been mentioned before, but living in a picturesque city selected in 1984 by UNESCO as significant addition to the heritage of the world, has its advantages. For one, you are surrounded by beauty and history which, for most, is a treat in itself. But for another, when your friends visit, you get to play tourist for a few days and discover all that the city has to offer, including some corny but cool options to explore and enjoy.

hbday-cartagena

Happy Birthday, Cartagena! 481 years young

One adventure in Cartagena that shouldn’t be missed is a night on a Chiva tour. Totally touristy, tacky and tiring, Chivas are city-roaming, open-sided buses that drive groups around the downtown area and beaches, with most stopping at sights, serving drinks and snacks, and providing live music. Though there are several companies offering the tours that seem similar, its rumored that no two Chivas are alike.

chiva-parked

Step 1: Meet the Chiva Dealer

While hotels and hostels offer tickets for Chiva tours, you don’t have to sign up in advance to find a good one. Denis passed me and my friend Javier, visiting from Perú, as we navigated a skinny Centro sidewalk. He smiled wide, catching my eye and rattling off the typical script given to tourists: “Playa Blanca, Isla Rosarios, Castillo San Felipe, Chiva tour…” “Yes!” I answered, almost startling him, “Chiva tour!” Denis’s smile broadened, “Si, amigos, ven conmigo!” (Yes, friends, come with me!) he responded, turning on his heels.

pechichona

Yes, there’s a Chiva called La Pechichona

As we walked together, Denis cheerfully made small talk about the city, adding that he loves his job and enjoys meeting people from around the world. Soon, we reached the Plaza del Reloj, where a tall man with a vest and ID badges wrote out paper tickets.

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I love the Chiva THIS MUCH

The tall man explained that, for the low price of $35000 COP (about $17 USD), the Chiva tour includes drinks, snacks, live music, an outside view of Castillo San Felipe, a visit to Las Murallas, and entry to a local discoteca, in about four hours. Denis then accompanied us to a large, colorful bus parked just outside the clock tower wall, where the front windscreen read Chocolate Tours: a Chiva company often seen around town (but unfortunately, with no website to reference here).

chiva-rally

We are just getting started here

We climbed aboard, settling into a long, burgundy padded bench seat, surrounded by colorful tin cutouts and brightly-painted ornamental wood. Other excited Chiva riders soon filled the rest of the seats, with one row dedicated to the three-piece Vallenato band of a caja, guacharaca and accordian.

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Sitting alone on the Chiva? Stock photo from tripadvisor.com

Step 2: Hold on to your vaso

The tour was off to a slow start as the bus snaked its way through Bocagrande, stopping at several hotels and homes where customers had made prior reservations. Though the pick up activity seemed to drag on for about an hour, the emcee, Rafael, stirred up the tourists over his microphone, asking where everyone was from, and encouraging the male riders to stand up and booty-dance over their seats.

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Rafael masters the microphone

The videographer, Denise, filmed smiling couples and families, as riders from Perú, New York, Chile, Miami, Argentina and Colombia shook maracas to the beat of the band.

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Rafael rallies the crowd

The driver, Bernardo, carefully navigated skinny streets, stopping at a small tienda where Rafael loaded boxes of rum, liters of Coca-Cola, and bags of ice to put in plastic cubetas until, finally, the Chiva got into full swing. As riders served drinks to each other, the band played loud, rhythmic Vallenato and sang harmoniously.

chiva-bebida

should we be suspicious the rack is designed for this bottle?

At our first stop, outside of Castillo San Felipe, riders were quickly advised by security to keep off the grass and obliged, but happily continued snapping photos as the castle loomed eerily in the night sky.

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With Bernardo our driver and the grass-stompers taking photos

Step 3: Bailando under the night sky (or inside the discoteca)

Continuing, the Chiva drove through the colorful streets of San Diego, stopping a second time at Las Murallas, where riders descended upon the high wall that surrounds the center of Cartagena.

cocada-kd

I’m thinking of this as my summer job. Yes?

On top of the wall, musicians took turns playing in groups as vendors hawked icy beer and soda, while others offered straw hats and shell necklaces. Tourists, as well as a group of local Mapalé dancers, celebrated in the hot but breezy Caribbean night.

murallas-vallenato

The kid was leading the vocals, amazing!

Gathering the group, Rafael escorted us back to the Chiva where a large tray of fritos, including arepa con huevo and several types of empanadas, awaited hungry riders. Before moving on to Manga, a residential area just beyond the Centro, the Chiva made several turns through bohemian-esque streets of Getsemani, passing bar hoppers and evening diners at local cafés and restaurants.

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Wilmar the vendor and his colorful cart killing it in the viking hat

Once in Manga, the Chiva stopped a few blocks from Taboo Crossover Club, a small discoteca where a DJ played popular songs in Salsa, Champeta, Vallenato and Reggaeton. Chiva riders disembarked for more dancing, this time among strobe lights, fog and air conditioning.

Step 4: Thank the Chiva and tell your friends

After about an hour, Rafael gathered up the riders wishing to return to the Centro, while several others remained at Taboo, having purchased botellas to drink on couches for lounging, probably well into the night. Arriving back at the Chiva, we discovered the rum was gone and the musicians had retired for the evening, but were grateful for the ride back to the Centro to catch a cab for home.

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Bernardo wanted me to drive but I don’t have a Colombian license

Having seen Chivas tours around Cartagena for the past year, I would absolutely recommend them to anyone wanting a fun evening out, or a good way to start a serious night of celebration. While the company you select may not be important, Chocolate Tours seems right for professional partying. Although the owner Jose Antonio mentioned other services the company offers, including beach excursions and private transportation it’s obvious the Chiva tour carries the most bang for your buck in just four hours.

chiva-kd-javi

Overall, the Chiva with Chocolate Tours was exactly what this Gringa Costeña wanted: a night cruising through Cartagena with fun people, enjoying live Valleanto, sipping rum and Cokes and appreciating all that makes this city live up to its nickname, La Fantastica.


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La Gringa Paisa

One of the (many) great things about Colombia is it’s multiple festivos throughout the calendar year. In addition to Navidad (Christmas) and Semana Santa (Holy Week, or Spring Break), there are several long weekends with a Friday or a Monday acting as the “festivo.” However, ask any Colombian what the festivo is celebrating, and most of them will be unable to tell you, mainly because there are so many in the year and also because, well, no one really knows, but any day reserved to celebrate and relax in Colombia is greatly-accepted, regardless of the reason.

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Pop hangin with his moped

For this festivo weekend, with an added day off for celebrating Dia de la Maestra (teaching is awesome), a quick getaway to Medellin and Guatapé fit perfectly into four days and three nights. An Avianca flight booked days before whooshed easily up in the air and back down in about forty minutes; another flawless flight on the favorable Colombian airline.

tierra-verde

lush lush lush crops everywhere

After landing in Medellin, transport to the city was had on the community buseta for a barato $8,600.00 COP, versus a taxi for the quoted $50,000.0o (más o menos) COP. Gracias a Díos for public transportation in South America. As the little buseta ripped its way over winding hilly terrain at daredevil speeds, I repeated the Spanish word for rollercoaster outloud “montaña rusa, montaña ruuuuusaaaaa!” as my neighboring passenger laughed at my fear/excitement.

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this doesn’t even begin to show the size of Medellin

Arriving to my guest home, I was greeted by a beautiful woman named Gloria who welcomed me, fed me, and asked me questions about my life in Colombia, before wishing me a good night’s sleep. Waking to the smell of café con leche and warm arepas, desayuna was enjoyed with my other host, Juan Fernando, prior to catching the metro to the terminal de transporte. A large, bustling, half-indoor, half-outdoor estacíon reminiscent of the one in Guayaquil, people rushed up and down the stairs of the four floors.

guatape-terminal

I was pendiente of the lady in yellow, who seemed to know the deal

The buses to Guatapé, located on the bottom floor next to the departure area, flashed neon signs advertising the small town about two hours away, as well as it’s main attraction, La Piedra Del Peñol, a gigantic monolith surrounded by a man-made lake and sprawling fincas and ranchos: the main reason for this personal journey to the land of the Paisa.

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rollin’ down the highway, fur-blowin’

The bus, priced at $12,500 COP one way, and packed with people (and one small dog), provided a breezy ride on twisty, winding mountain roads through lush green rolling countryside. This interior terrain of Colombia is spectacular to see, and the climate – know by many as “eternal spring,” was a welcome relief to the rising heat of Cartagena.

tierra-paisano

Juan Valdez lives!

Stopping to pick up vendors and drop off passengers, the bus continued until at last, appearing in the vast landscape like a humpback whale rising from a foamy green sea, it was finally visible: El Peñol, which left this gringa without words at first sight.

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my heart started racing: first sight of El Peñol

As the bus drove closer,  finally passing the giant rock and rolling its way through Guatapé, I was so enamored by the scenery that I missed the little town and had to get off after the bus passed over the river, taking a colorful, speedy moto car back across.

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This guy was so nice! He called a moto car for me after the bus stopped over the bridge

At my first stop, Lake View Hostel, where I “booked” my reservation by emailing the owner, Greg, a day before. I was greeted warmly by a gentleman named Johnny who proudly showed me the relatively-new hospedaje, my home for the night.

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“Your (amazing, multi-colored, inexpensive) ride is here!”

Following a conversation with Johnny about Colombian life (and how we both love it), I took a moto car to El Peñol for $10,000 COP. It should be noted that collectivos, a rideshare in the back of a Nissan Patrol or similar vehicle with other passengers, are also available for about $3,000.

penol-lookup

Looking up, feeling all of my years in my feet!

Regardless of the cost of transport, ascending the giant entry to El Peñol was almost as magnificent as standing before this huge monolith in person. Prior to moving to Colombia in 2014, this giant edifice, made of minerals including quartz, feldspar and mica, and rising 2,135 metres (7,005 ft) nearly straight up, has fascinated me and been at the top of my list of places to see in Colombia.

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Halfway up: “Please God, let the Gringa get to the top.”

Fortunately, after paying $12,500 COP and climbing all 700 steps to the top, El Peñol did not disappoint. The climb up is momentarily brutal but overall exhilarating. Watching visitors from ages 3 to (possibly) 93 climb the skinny, carved rock staircase in the side of El Peñol was an adventure in itself.

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Obligatory halfway-up selfie. Look at that view! Colombia te quiero!

Once at the top, the extraordinary view of this beautiful, diverse country made every step worthwhile. As the wind whipped around people taking selfies and staring out over the sprawling terrain of greens and blues, it was almost impossible not to feel a spiritual connection with Colombia.

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Made it! Look at this beautiful country! When are you coming to visit?!

After a good hour at the top, the climb back down El Peñol was refreshing and easily achieved. Piling into a double moto car disguised as a Chiva and able to hold six people comfortably, I squeezed in as a seventh, riding on one of the two batteries to either side of the driver.

motocar-frontfeet

Yes, those are my feet next to the wheel. Nice arms, driver!

Yep, a “seat” of about 50 square centimeters (8 inches) was my ride space for the 15-minute journey down twisty, tree-lined roads. Praying to keep my balance steady, I cozied up to the driver over a few bumps, while he delivered our party safely, as promised.

motocar-front

Here I am acting cool but secretly praying to make it back safely

Walking through the colorful little town of Guatapé was a huge treat for panoramic-vista laden eyes, listening to the sound of a televised futbol game off in the distance, as families ate early dinners on their multi-level patios.

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Mini Chiva and mini-mini chiva! The driver and I had a good laugh over this

As evening settled on Guatapé, colorful lanterns, strung on the tourist boats that cruise the river, dotted the horizon of the night sky, like a rainbow of low-hung stars.

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Photo courtesy of HostelWorld.com

Returning to Lakeview Hostel at dinnertime meant trying some bites from Thai Terrace, a restaurant open to the public and located on the rooftop patio. Two types of Spring Rolls, fresh and flash fried, were served with interesting dipping sauces – peanut to compliment the fresh and spicy plum to enhance the fried. Both were excellent and presented prettily on small plates.

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Barely awake: Champagne and me with el Peñol in the background

The next morning, before the bus ride back to Medellin ($12500 COP), an early start meant my choice of horseback riding companions from the vaqueros who congregate in the centro. I chose Alberto, with his wide smile and friendly “Buenos dias, mona linda, a la orden.” His smooth greeting roped me in like a baby calf to a seasoned cowboy.

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Alberto my horseback guide. Paisas are awesome.

The air was crisp and dewy, and the poncho I had bargained down the evening before was well-appreciated, as my horse Champagne galloped along old stone roads.

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Riding through the town streets, we headed out to the monastery, about an hour’s ride uphill, through back roads, passing little fincas and roadside tiendas.

guata-apartaestudio

Alberto and I talked about our future living here. Just kidding. (Or am I?!)

After horseback riding, a few hours walking along the malecón in Guatapé revealed a lively, friendly town excited to cater to tourists and locals alike. Vendors accepted price wagers cheerfully, and those preparing drinks and snacks made profitable advances in the warm, sunny weather.

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Mango margarita with fresh lime and chili – $5,000 COP are you kidding!? Amazing!

A hat for $18,000 COP was haggled down to $15,000 just in time for the sun to start beating down. Passing through colorful street after colorful street, it was easy to become enamored with this tiny picturesque town.

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Favorite vacation photo – feeling Paisa proud in Guatapé!

Returning from Guatapé to Medellin felt a little sad, like going from a colorful bike with a banana seat to a giant 10-speed bicycle overnight.

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The bus station in Guatapé! Don’t blink, you’ll miss it

As the huge city appeared in the valley, and the terminal de transportes ushered in the return bus, and a grateful sentiment was expressed for a safe journey and the humbling awe of making another dream come true.

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Harley Davidson of Medellin had a rally in the Guatapé Zocaló on Sunday!

Exhausted from the past day and a half, I slept for nine hours straight after arriving to Gloria and Juan Fernando’s. The next morning, and last day in Paisaland, I set out for a free walking tour with Real City Tours, booked online two nights before.

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Back in Medellin, buildings everywhere…

Fortunately, I was able to avoid being one of 85 people on a waiting list by jumping in at the exact moment the online reservations opened up.

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Photo courtesy of Real City Tours. Try them!

Meeting at a metro station, our group of twenty-four listened intently as our guide, Juliana, born in the US and raised in Medellin, delivered interesting, fact-filled monologues about her giant metropolis.

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the Belgian architect never finished this – fancy vs. “get it done.”

Adept in holding a crowd’s attention, with a university degree in storytelling, Juliana discussed everything from business to politics to history,  enthusiastically stating statistics and reciting remembrances about the second largest city in Colombia.

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Guarapo – amazing drink made with cane sugar and lime!

While the camera-happy tourist in me longed to see more buildings and artwork along the tour, the extranjera in me curiously soaked in the richness of Medellin and it’s powerful vibe as the second largest city in Colombia.

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I am so grateful to be a teacher in Colombia!

Juliana spoke volumes when she described the ideal Paisa as a hard-working, intelligent, proud (but shrewd) businessperson whose manners are foremost in conversation, occasionally overshadowing the advantage of a deal but still welcoming a savvy deal-maker.

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“You going to try out for the Juan Valdez lookalike contest this weekend?”

While Juan Valdez lookalikes can still be seen in the area surrounding Medellin, this fictitious character based on a hard-working coffee farmer who loves his country and his job, is really not too far off, he’s just evolved with modern times.

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Does every city in Colombia have a statue of Simon Bolivár?

On the last stop of our tour, Juliana stood beside a metal sculpture that was blown to bits by dynamite during the 1980’s, and pieced back together as a memorial to tragedy, loss and bad memories. Though the city wanted the statue demolished, beloved Colombian artist Fernando Botero insisted it be displayed, stating that if we forget the past, we are destined to repeat it.

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Botero birds – bombed and made new, side by side

The statue remains on display, next to a newer version, so Medellin would not forget how far it has come since the crime-laden days of Pablo Escobar in the 1980’s, and the years of extreme political corruption the 1990’s.

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Medellin you are gorgeous!

Working my way back through the Centro to catch the buseta to the airport, I reflected on the incredible diversity of Colombia and felt grateful for my new life here. I said a little prayer of thanks for every incredible place there is to see, the amistad and warmth of the people, the fantastic culture and, especially, the bonus of festivo days to experience it all.

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Juliana from Real City Tours! Proud and delightful Paisa woman


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La Gringa Vallenata

Y no la pasamos chatiando todo el tiempo, Me dice tu musica si me encanta
Es que la tengo a la gringa en su puesto, Y yo le envío canciones Vallenatas
Es que la tengo a la gringa en su puesto, Y yo le envío canciones Vallenatas

All the time we are chatting, She tells me I love your music
It is that I have the gringa of course, And I send her Vallenato songs
It is that I have a gringa of course, And I send her Vallenato songs

– from “La Gringa” by Silvestre Dangond & Juancho de La Espriella

rancho-alegre

It means “welcome to the happy ranch” and they mean it!

Of the many wonderful things there are to note about Colombia, one that bears repeating is its universal love of festivos and celebrations, when most people take at least an extra day to relax and have fun. Learning several days prior that the 48th Annual Festival Vallenato was being held the weekend of April 30th in beautiful Valledupar, Cesar, there was no question about what travel plans to make.

Leaving Barranquilla... look at that lush tierra!

Leaving Barranquilla… look at that super green tierra!

My WorldTeach Colombia 2014 host and hermana Colombiana, Marina, is originally from Valledupar and has always encouraged me to visit her home town for its rich culture, gorgeous landscape and … of course…Vallenato.

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I bought it on the bus for $1000 COP. I figured it was fate.

After an 8 hour bus ride which left Cartagena at 6:45 am, connected in Barranquilla, and concluded the last two hours without air conditioning, thirty or so sweaty people, most wearing sombrero vueltiaos and drinking water from little plastic bags, rolled down country roads, and finally arrived in Valledupar.

Cute taxi kiosko in Valledupar

Cute taxi kiosko in Valledupar

At the Terminal de Transportes, I was greeted by a young woman working with the Governmental Department of Cesar, who encouraged me to take a free tour organized by the city for this year’s festival, and presented some post cards and a map highlighting adventure spots in the area.

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Do you think she secretly knows there is no tour?

Another new adventure in itself is the online community, www.couchsurfing.com, which so far has connected me with friendly travelers in Cartagena. Arranging the week before to stay with hosts from couchsurfing.com went well for this trip to Valledupar. My first host, Darwin, greeted me at the terminal and swept me away to his stunning home on lush green land nearby. We enjoyed making patacones together and talked about travel, music and cooking.

dog-patacones

Don’t even think about it, doggie

Darwin told me some history of Valledupar and the surrounding areas. Around 8:00 pm, he dropped me off for a gran concierto featuring several Vallenato and Champeta artists. It immediately began to rain very hard.

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Three women from Medellin called out to me, “Gringa, estas sola? Ven, ven aca!” Taking me in with them, we waited out the downpour under a palca with several police officers and concert workers, as the waters rose around us and the ground turned into a giant mud pond.

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Martin Elias and the gigantic amazing Rolando Ochoa

After the rains subsided, we were escorted to seats near the front of the outdoor theater, where artist after artist took the stage accompanied by a slew of backing musicians. For several hours, Churo Díaz, Mr. Black and El Zorrillo, Kvrass, and Martin Elias with Rolando Ochoa all performed. Martin Elias was perhaps the most impressive, with his infectious energy, tight showmanship and resounding voice. The son of late Vallenato superstar Diomedes Diaz, Elias sang each song with precision and enthusiasm, clearly an artist born to a legend, but who stands on his own when performing in concert.

“What is this gringa doing by herself at a concert in Valledupar?”

Leaving the show in the early morning hours meant sleeping until noon, after which Darwin and I said our goodbyes from Centro Comercial Guatapuri, where my Colombian boyfriend Juan Valdez served a generous cup of his delicious coffee, before leaving for the free tour promoted by the Department of Cesar.

Juan-derfulUnfortunately, the tour never happened. Arriving at the biblioteca meant finding many beautiful paintings of Vallenato artists outside, but no tour. A group of disappointed visitors complained outright when a two-level bus arrived from Banco de Bogotá, not the Department of Cesar, and did not have a tour to offer.

biblio-painting

Great painting! Now where’s my free tour?

Recognizing two women from the Cartagena bus, Mariela and Indira, we agreed the tour was a bust and took a taxi together to the centro, where we enjoyed listening to music among a huge crowd in the Plaza Alfonso Lopéz. Soon after, my second Couchsurfing host, Luis Fernando, arrived to take me to a street party of friends and family.

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Agua de Coco with Luz Mariela and Indira

As we arrived, the birthday guy happily exclaimed, “una gringa para mi cumpleaños? Gané! ” (A gringa for my birthday? I Win!), as his wife (the party hostess) handed me a large platter of birria y bollo (goat and corn buns). Being a polite vegetarian, I ate the bollo, and Luis Fernando graciously snuck the plate of birra back into the house.

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we ARE getting on that bus

Saturday morning, determined to see the city from the top of an open tour bus, Mariela, Indira and I met again outside the biblioteca, where a large bus arrived, this time reserved for Banco de Bogotá employees and their families. Indira explained to the driver we had waited most of yesterday afternoon for a tour that never happened. The driver replied it was not his decision to only include Banco de Bogotá employees and their families. Still, we stood firm, determined to get on that bus.

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Indira, Julian from Banco de Bogotá and me, dancing all day

Eventually, Mariela, Indira and I were given t-shirts like the employees were wearing and invited on the bus. The camaraderie, hospitality and fun among these Banco de Bogotá employees was incredible. We danced on the sidewalks by the Parque Mercado Artesanal. We danced in the parking lot near the Rio Gutapuri.

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“Stop dancing and buy a mochilla!”

We even danced on the second floor of the bus while it was moving, ducking to avoid treacherous mango tree branches and low-hanging utility wires.  In fact, the Banco de Bogotá group was so lively and fun, we danced more than we sat, and still saw the entire city from the top of the bus. Mission (of fun) accomplished.

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Tintico, little tinto (coffee) served out of a vintage Willy’s jeep

Following favorite traditional, delicious Colombian lunch of fried fish, patacones and arroz de coco, Luis Fernando chauferred a driving tour of the popular statues and landmarks of Valledupar. We stopped at each monument, taking photos and reading about the history of this diverse and creative city. In the evening, Luis Fernando recommended a nearby space that had been turned into an outdoor discoteca-vallenato fusion dance club (yes, more dancing).

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With Luis Fernando and the Accordion statue

As the DJ mixed songs from Alkiados and Kevin Florez with Peter Manjarrés and Carlos Vives, cerveza Club Colombia, who sponsored the event, switched out icy buckets of cold beer for thirsty dancers. The next morning, the streets showed evidence of revelry, waking slowly, littered with paper plates, beer cans and cups, and workers who rose early to clean up the festive mess.

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Sightseeing in Valledupar

Boarding a bus back to Cartagena for eight hours, the sound of Vallenato still lingering, I watched from the window as the coast of Colombia rolled by, arriving home in the evening to catch a moto from the terminal de transporte and get a good night’s sleep. The following day, I asked my 11th grade about their weekend activities, and the students asked about mine.

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The plane outside of Barranquilla… almost home!

Before I could finish telling them about Valledupar, several began singing, “La Gringa” by Silvestre Dangond. “You have to see the video!” they exclaimed, “It’s about a gringa who comes to Colombia and falls in love with the culture. She goes to La Guajira and learns to dance Vallenato!”

At the student’s suggestion, we played the song over the classroom speakers, just loud enough for those next door to hear we were having fun and learning English. As I watched them singing and dancing, reaffirming this country’s love of festivos and celebrations,  I once again felt grateful for being in Colombia. Even when teaching seems too difficult, the air makes it too hot to breathe, or dancing until 5 am is simply exhausting, I’m reminded that life – no matter where you live or what you do – is truly all about what you make it. You can choose to be sullen and dark, focused on all that you can’t get through, or you can choose to smile and celebrate until you find the silver lining. Or, in Colombia’s case, the gold that shines brilliantly, like a giant accordion statue in the middle of Valledupar.

kd-accordion

Gracias por todos, Valledupar, te quiero mucho!


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Nueva Casa y Semana Santa

Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American author 1809 – 1894

In the past thirty days, I have escaped from yet another awkward living situation that I agreed to and got myself into; a situation that turned out to be a bad choice rift with life lessons in human psychology as well as some self-reflection. One day soon, it’s all going to make for a fantastic book, but for now it’s a painful reminder that if we step outside of ourselves for a moment, most of what we experience is continuous learning in everything we do.

neighbors

my new neighbor’s patio is ceramica swanky

The leap from a 10th floor bedroom to a sweet little ground-floor apartment took perseverance, patience and persistence. As with circumstances before, it paid off, costing me only a haggled-for “added fee” not discussed prior to the move-in, and one giant reminder of how powerful a weapon silence is during appropriate moments.

Sometimes the words people don’t say are as powerful
as the ones they do.”
― Ann E. Burg, American author

I bid farewell to the Bocagrande digs around the week of March 27th; up to this date, the days were so extremely odd (and at times unbelievable), I did what any extranjera in a strange situation who aspires to publish a book would do: I wrote about it. Each time my former housemate pitched a fit or questioned me up close with an unpredictable smile, I retreated to Rapunzel’s room to write about the event(s).

Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.
– Charles Dickens, English novelist

rapunzel

So. Weird. The Universe is sending many messages.

Upon leaving, which happened with raised voices and calling a co-worker for backup, I created an amusing short story quite suitable for screenplay material. For now, it must remain among the rest of the tall tales about Colombia, at least until I am out of the country and far from an arm’s length of hair-pulling and mysterious spells.

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My new neighborhood pub. Just kidding!

As soon as my two suitcases landed, they took off again, this time on a spontaneous Semana Santa getaway to Barranquilla to stay with the wonderful family I found (manifested) last year in April.  The two hour Berlinas bus ride had me so excited to be back in La Arenosa, that I somehow lost my $40 mil text-and-talk only pay-as-you-go (read: crap) Movistar phone I purchased during my first month in Colombia. Que pena.

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En route to Barranquilla from Cartagena

Somewhere, someone found the little celulár without a camera (but with an FM radio) and talked away the remaining $10 mil of minutes. Movistar was surprisingly easy to contact via Facebook (of all places) and the stellar customer service agent cancelled the SIM card immediately, assuring me that I could keep the same number. Ah, the notable ways of business in South America.

ocho-furia

Ocho Sweet Ocho, so nice to be back

Arriving in the Terminal de Transportes and taking La Carolina to La Ocho felt like coming home. I was greeted with hugs and kisses and some of Marina’s delicious Colombian cooking. Buzzfeed recently did a piece on Colombian food, and left out half of my favorites, including the bebida de campeones, Pony Malta, and Marina’s amazing arroz de coco.

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rumor has it the video was removed for “translation errors.” buuuu

Anticipating “one or two days tops” for a visit, the reality was five full days, which passed quickly with riotous laughter, sit-down meals and gift exchanges, as well as feeling truly blessed to be considered family with these incredible people.

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The tiniest Lolaya bus ever

My Colombian “sister” and I joked about dating, gossiped (nicely) about the neighbors and caught up on the latest music blasted from the discoteca next door. We rode the bus clear past Centro Comercial Buenavista one afternoon, missing the stop for Estadio Romelio Martinez and heading out to La Playa, a cute little town between the top of Barranquilla and nearby Puerto Colombia.

laplaya

La Playa center plaza with igelsia

On the return route, we stopped at the stadium to purchase low priced souvenirs, walking a few blocks to La Frutera Barranquilla, to enjoy plentiful pizza, flavorful bolas de papas and amazing fresh juice. If you ever visit the city, check out this wonderful place. It’s located at Carrera 38 near Calle 70B in Barrio Parque Olaya, and often very busy.

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Even the pizza has the colors of the Barranquilla flag

During my stay, I was happy to hear Marina is hosting another WorldTeach volunteer this year, and noticed that many of her friends visit the house at all hours of the day. Marina is a generous host, welcoming the extranjeras and shooing her kids out of the living room when things get crazy. One evening, we returned home to find five gringos on the couch planning their evening: a fantastic sight to see in La Ocho, as people often told me how dangerous it was to live there (mientiras!)

marina-mujeres

WorldTeach volunteers (and one alumni) with Marina in the center

After visiting with a teacher friend from Colegio Distrital Hogar Mariano and seeing familiar neighborhood merchants, the journey back to Cartagena felt bittersweet. While Cartageneros are known for their culture-savvy style, there’s no doubt Barranquillernos have a reputation of being relaxed but always ready for la rumba of life. After more than a year amongst warm, wild Costeños in both cities, it’s difficult to declare a favorite, as each has it’s equal share of admirable traits.

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Keep being you, Barranquilla!

Returning to Cartagena at the end of Spring Break still allotted time to play tourist, with a long-awaited tour of Casa Museo Rafael Nuñez. While amable security guard Jhon Haido recited many interesting facts about this former Colombian President, a visiting crowd perused the grounds and peeked into rooms of the home once occupied by Nuñez and his second wife, Soledad Roman.

casarafaelhangin

Hangin’ at Casa Museo Rafael Nuñez

This impressive couple kept busy during and after Nuñez’s multiple years as President: while Soledad had a church built across the street from the house, Nuñez wrote the words to the country’s national anthem, Oh! Gloria Inmarcesible, and eleven-verse poem set to music by opera singer Oreste Sindici, at the request of José Domingo Torres, an actor from Bogotá.

(Ojalá! Are you feeling the total Colombian history nerd vibe now, or what!?)

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Soledad Roman’s beautiful little church at Parque Apolo

As Holy Week came to a close and normal life returned to Cartagena, knowing this journey may be ending sooner than anticipated makes savoring every moment a requirement, not an option. Watching another day slip beyond centuries-old colonial walls, gratitude and appreciation for the present moment – and this screenplay-worthy life – radiated outward like the Caribbean sun setting over the deep blue ocean.

wall-dwaynejc

Camino en las Murrallas


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Esperanza en La Fantastica

esperanza /ess-peh-RAHN-zuh/ feminine noun 1. hope (deseo, ganas); expectation (confianza, expectativas); org: Spanish

The first three months as English teacher with Aspaen Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias have been exhausting, interesting and overall satisfying. Though the schedule of class hours are average for a profesora, the school is anything but average. Located on a grassy acreage outside of the city, this notable Cambridge International Exams-affiliated school consists of several large, modern buildings and sizable classrooms connected by brick walkways, with colorful peacocks roaming freely on the grounds.

peacockschoolTeaching English to levels 9, 10 and 11 includes instruction of literature, with a focus on reading, listening and speaking, as well as creative writing. Reading five different books in a term is demanding, but also a task any literary nerd would embrace with enthusiasm, and respond to by sharing this enthusiasm with intelligent young minds.

books

Photos with loved ones, Cafe Cordoba, alarm clock from Spain and… four out of five books!

Embraces aside, this experience varies greatly from volunteering with 4th and 5th grade public school students last year, but some things about life on the coast, and teaching as a foreigner, feel similar. Most students are curious about life in the US and speaking with an extranjera, as well as ready to dance at a moment’s notice.

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Señora Samara with the smiling girls of Colegio Distrítal Hogar Mariano

During Carnavales, a video featuring the dancing docentes of Colegio Distriál Hogar Mariano in Barranquilla, Atlántico, made its viral journey to hundreds via Whatsapp. Watching beloved campeñeros of last year’s WorldTeach Colombia 2014 volunteer school shimmy across stage was a bittersweet reminder of the challenging and inspiring time spent with them.

profes

Next Stop: Bonga

In February, the teachers of GCI attended a convivencia (overnight retreat) at a gorgeous finca just outside of the city. A huge country house with dozens of rooms, large sitting areas and an enormous second story patio, Bonga is located on a grassy hillside overlooking the ocean near Manzanillo del Mar, halfway between Cartagena de Indias and Barranquilla.

bonga-bienvenidas

Welcome to Bonga!

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The ocean view from one of the sleeping rooms at Bonga.

Teachers were treated to team-building workshops, planning discussions, and worship sessions, including a special mass in the beautiful chapel. We talked about the importance of family and student relations, as well as participated in role-playing activities.

bonga-chapel

The teachers all had mass together here. So sweet.

With its early-morning meetings, family-style meals and breathtaking views of the Colombian coast, Conviviencia Bonga enero 2015 provided a busy 24 hours and a wonderful way to forge new friendships with the amiable and fun teachers of Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias.

bonga

Where was your last company retreat?

Bocagrande y Base Naval

Like most places in the world where life is busy, the weeks in Colombia pass quickly. Living in Bocagrande under restrictive shared housing until a new apartment is ready in April means getting out now and finding relief outside of the torre 10 floors up.

Paintings of Cartagena welcome guests at Hotel Balcones de Bocagrande

Paintings of Cartagena welcome guests at Hotel Balcones de Bocagrande

One evening, the sidewalks on both sides of the main street, Avendia San Martin, filled with families celebrating La Virgen de la Candelaria. Calvagata, a Colombian tradition of horseback riding and showmanship in traditional clothing, featured sturdy caballos mounted by paisas who handled the strong animals with perfection, parading by in a charismatic presentation.

calvgara

That’s probably Aguardiente in his pocket. Giddyup!

Another weekend, an invitation from a friend to tour the SS Providencia, docked at the Base Naval , provided amazing views of the city and marina one can only experience from the deck of a boat, in this case, a large Navy ship. From the captain’s area, where the boat is steered, to the top deck overlooking the engine room, touring this boat was a unique honor.

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providencia

Fantastic view of La Fantastica from afar

As Caribbean winds whipped through the steel tresses of La Providencia, practice Navy barcos, private yachts and tourist boats commingled in the busy waters, gliding towards port as colorful skies settled into evening.

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Happy tourists aboard “El Mejor” – the best!

Finally, leaving the boat at 6:00 pm, it seemed the entire Naval base went still for the sounding over speakers of the Colombian national anthem, Oh! Gloria Inmarcesible , wrapping up another weekend in Cartagena in patriotic style.

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On the deck of the SS Providencia with historic Cartagena in the background

¿Por Que, Colombia?

As time passes, adjusting to a new school and its students, as well as living in a breathtaking, beautiful city,  has its moments of stress and doubt. “Why Colombia?” People often ask. “Why Cartagena?” It’s difficult not to ask oneself this, when tearful days of disappointing lessons and heartache from missing family and friends feel overwhelming.

Juangrades

Juan Valez Café, a comforting place for grading papers

In these moments, it’s best to remember coping techniques learned as a volunteer, including to the often-accurate W Chart, which shows highs and lows of a dramatic life experience (one typical example is first year university). This simple yet effective way of seeing a situation provides not only insight to “why am I feeling this?” but also one essential element: hope, in this case that things will get better. Just as the lines of the W go down, they also come back up; believing the future may rise often helps.

W-Curve

graphic provided by Thought for Food

One effective way of “going up in the W” is reflecting on the things to love about living in Colombia, unwavering reasons like the incredible scenery, the gorgeous people and the picturesque city; its difficult to be sad when there is so much beauty everywhere. Another reason is the music, with its wide range of tempos and origins. Lately Carlos Vives’ La Fantastica, an anthem of adoration titled after Cartagena’s nickname, feels especially enlightening.

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One of the beautiful people in La Fantastica

With it’s referential lyrics, rhythmic tambor and shrill gaita sounds, heavy spirits begin to lift with just one listen of this song. Combine the sound of  La Fantastica with the gorgeous view of golden-hued colonial buildings, weathered cobblestone streets, and warm smiles of the people here and suddenly there is no question as to why, just bountiful thoughts of gratitude… and how to make a new life in Colombian work for the best.

 


Legales, Ladrones, y Lavadoras

Returning to the land of golden arepas and Vallenato music during a January festivo weekend meant time to walk around colorful San Diego, in the center of Cartagena de Indias. Although most places were closed up tight, tourists continued to fill the streets, mixing among the locals and non-natives who have relocated to this brilliant city on the Caribbean Sea.

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As slow day at the Sombrero Vueltiao stand near El Centro

Legally Blonde

Most new employment for foreigners in Colombia requires a visit to Migracíon, either to request or renew a cedula extranjera, Colombia’s national photo ID. Nearly every Colombian can recite their cedula number at notice, and for some non-citizens, it is a privilege to carry this card.

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Gorgeous! Look at that proud Migracíon building

 

The Migración building is located in Pie de la Popa, a barrio named for an old monastery on a hill overlooking Cartagena. Pie de la Popa is moderately safe during the day, making the short walk from the bus stop somewhat enjoyable. Located near a beautiful church, Ermita de la Candelaria, the historic Migración building is a divine example of classic Cartagena design.

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Sweet soft green of Ermita de la Candelaria

Painted rich colonial gold with white trim, the inside of the Migracíon building features carved wood transoms over the windows, and swinging gate-like panels of stained glass in front of huge mahogany office doors.  Muted hues of gray, burgundy and gold accent the patterned tile floor, while exquisite dark wood chandeliers provide visitors places to stare as they wait to have their Take-a-Ticket number called.

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Inside Migracíon, the back patio area.

Bienveni-d’ohs!

Searching for housing on a new teacher’s salary and as a foreigner has been like a double shot of reality served neat. Upon arrival to Cartagena, a living situation arranged in December via Airbnb.com proved to be an exalting challenge.

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Santa Maria de barrio Crespito, ayudarme en esta situacion.

Enhanced by the lack of wifi in the home, being told by locals that the price, agreed offline before arrival, for 10 days in a jail cell-sized room was nearly the same as a month in a regular-sized room with wifi burned like Aguardiente on an empty stomach.

jailcell

“Perfect for a backpacker!” You don’t say…

With faith in humankind proving a foolish choice, agreeing without AirBnB involved was a bitter lesson learned. To all Airbnb users, please proceed with caution when dealing with anyone wanting to bargain offsite. You forfeit your right to a refund once you have paid and are unable to write an honest review about the host, should the need ever arise. In this case, cash in hand once taken, was clearly non-negotiable, resulting in 10 days of living comfortably, but with mild regrets.

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Tumble Dry Low

Despite the lamentable details of the OffBnB apartment, it wasn’t as bad as my first place in Barranquilla, and it was pretty, with a notable modern convenience: una lavadora. As with most countries, clothes washing machines vary from portable simple tubs to elaborate front-loaders. This one, a small Haceb model is very simple: hose water comes in, the clothes are efficiently washed, and the hose water drains out. The best part however, is the centrifuga, which spins the wet clothes wildly with a whirring mechanism, wringing all the water out. After several months last year hand-washing everything from tangas to towels, waiting hours for things to dry, this salad-spinner like device was a welcomed site.

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God Bless You, little Haceb lavadora

Buscar Lugar

Lavadoras aside, the search to find suitable housing with restricted resources in a limited time meant scrambling: walking around, knocking on doors, calling random ads from community boards and perusing the advertisement website OXL . Most days, the search resulted in dodgy-sounding room-and-board situations, or houses with stinky pets and questionable boarders, all of which began to seem promising as the date to vacate the costly mistake location neared rapidly.

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The view from the new laundry area

Fortunately, February 1st presented a mes-de-mes room with a private bath, and the jail cell door sprung open. A high-rise apartment with a view ten floors up of the beach at Bocagrande, the “big mouth” of Cartagena, and 24 hour reception/security is where a suitcase, backpack and computer bag have temporarily settled.

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Everybody into the pool! OK just me for now.

In contrast to its strict rule of no visitors, the high-rise has a small shimmering pool on the roof, which is great for relaxing and planning the next move. As the search for a cute little apartaestudio or new shared housing (with visitation rights) continues, it’s nice to be among shopping, restaurants and within walking distance of my loyal Colombian boyfriend’s place, Juan Valdez Café.

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Yep, grading papers with Juan Valdez. I’m definitely back in Colombia.


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Holiday Travel 2014: Us, We, Me and O Not U

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Manos de WorldTeach! Hands of our 2014 Volunteer group

December, with its many festive celebrations, gift-giving and end-of-year conclusions, was like a turbulent snowstorm churning out change in its unpredictable winds. Completing a year of service as a WorldTeach volunteer was emotive, celebratory, conclusive and relieving.

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The “new” Finca Santa Cruz, outside of Bogotá

At an End of Service retreat to close the program, the remaining group of 2014 volunteers discussed transitioning back into home life after a year in Colombia, such as how to speak about our many experiences, and reasonable answers to odd questions.

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My award from WorldTeach Colombia 2014. ¡Verdad!

Surprisingly, after a week in the United States, the most relevant information EOS provided was how to deal with your thoughts, plus appropriate reactions to what used seem normal but now seems strange.

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Capilla de la Valvanera outside Bogotá. Beautiful!

Often, it appeared people we had left for the year did not care about a volunteer experience abroad, where power outages were common or the streets turned to rivers during rainstorms. Instead, they turned their focus to what was comfortable: “Really, you lived without air conditioning? That’s crazy! Want to go to Starbucks?” Suddenly, the familiar felt unfamiliar.

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City Hall, Sugar Hill Georgia

After flying the friendly skies from South America, a week in Atlanta, Georgia was like a southern-fried welcome of hot molasses over chipped ice: sweet, but messy, too. Between sleeping late and visiting with friends, there was the official business do be done at the Colombian consulate for a 2015 work visa.

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The consulate in Atlanta, operating in a modest office building near Sandy Springs, boasted a giant Colombian flag, a photo of President Juan Manuel Santos, and several paintings of countrymen wearing sombrero vueltiaos. Following a brief interview regarding my purpose for living in Cartagena de Indias, and restraining myself from breaking into “Oh Gloria Inmarcesible!,” I was granted a visa to return and work in Colombia.

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Arepas for dinner after a visit to the Colombian consulate!

Seven days in Atlanta passed as rapidly as commuters in the HOV lane of Interstate 85. Next stop for holiday merriment: the Carolina Lowcountry. The Charleston International Airport is a modest 30-minute drive to James Island, where olfactory senses come alive driving along salt marshes emanating their briny pluff mud fragrance into the evening air. This aroma, typically pungent to the visitor of Charleston, is quite possibly one of the most comforting smells to anyone who has spent time living in the area.

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Looking towards Charleston from Sunrise Park, James Island

Three weeks on James Island was perfect: enough time to savor the flavors of Charleston, satisfying all cravings of Southern food, hospitality and charm, but ending before saying, “fix me a plate” sounded like a normal way to talk.

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Hoppin John, collard greens and boiled peanuts: Happy New Year 2015!

Delectable cuisine ranging from plates of beach fusion to traditional Peruvian holiday dishes, to the greatest of all culinary treats, Mom’s potato salad, was enjoyed with enthusiasm and extra napkins. A perfect blend of potatoes, radishes, celery, hard boiled egg, seasoning and mayonnaise, this potato salad makes you wish every meal needed a side dish.

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Papa la Huicana Perúvian potato salad

The crab cake eggs benedict brunch special at La Tabella would make Anthony Bourdain’s swear jar overflow (if he had one). A backyard oyster roast on John’s Island, where guests shucked and sucked their way through bushels of bivalves, accompanied by saltines and plenty of hot sauce, was simply delicious.

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3 seconds later the mimosa flew off the table. Good times.

Fried dill pickles, lobster macaroni and cheese, fried okra and multiple cups of She Crab soup were devoured with delight during this epicurean adventure.

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Southern meals typically start with grace, which is where faith comes in, rolling holy. Sunday morning appearances as a lifetime member of the warm and welcoming congregation of a local Presbyterian church brought smiles and curious inquiries about my volunteer work, as well as repeated explanations that I live in “Colombia (South America), not Columbia (South America).”

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Adorable adornments from Guatemala at church

Questions of doubt were met with gratitude, describing a challenging year in which prayer played an important part of staying. After experiencing amazing (as well as a few awful) situations in Colombia, being a part of this community again was a genuine reminder of the power of faith.

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Another reason church is a great place to go

If prayer isn’t enough inspiration during one visit to Charleston, it can also be found in local free magazine stacks anywhere within a 5 mile radius of downtown. More than just cheap classified productions or glossy promotional publications, these magazines are entertaining, inspiring literary works.

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Magazines… and a not-so-awesome pisco sour

From City Paper to Art Mag, the Lowcountry boasts quality reading, like the all-time favorite Skirt!, where an excellent article by Dean Lofton elaborated on the importance of personal writing practice.

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Inside an Embusa in Barranquilla, Charleston get a clue!

While its true South Carolina has a unique culture, picturesque places, and mouthwatering food, it lacks one element that Colombia has mastered: public transportation. It seems everyone in Charleston has a car, or a car and a truck, for those weekend boat hauls and multiple trips to Home Depot. Some people drive golf carts or ride mopeds, however, unlike the mototaxis of Colombia, mopeds are primarily used when a driving license is suspended, and golf carts are often driven by underaged kids. With it’s huge bridges, miles of marsh-bordered highways and sprawling suburban areas, its hard to determine what type of city bus could handle the Lowcountry terrain and still adequately serve the public.

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Charleston… or Cartagena? The similarities are surprising

Following Charleston, a quick trip through Atlanta brought an evening of flashback fun watching The Smiths cover band Smithsonian perform at Terminal West. Atlanta has changed dramatically in recent years,  and huge buildings now stand where there once were grassy fields, giving new meaning to the term “urban development.”

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Smithsonian at Terminal West, Sweetness I was only joking!

Regardless, one thing that remains unchanged is the song catalog of The Smiths, and Smithsonian expertly belted out hit after hit from the London-based 80’s sensation, covering with perfection the brilliant sound of Morrissey and Johnny Marr.

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Freaky formation under the ocean en route to South America

After three weeks of pralines, prayers and passenger seats, flying from Atlanta towards Cartagena was as bittersweet as a wide slice of rhubarb pie. While it seems ironic to no longer consider the Southern US home, deferring this title now to Sacramento (California), Jalisco (México), and most recently, the Northwest corner of South America, it also seems the most honest response to the question, “where do you live?”

To which I reply, “Colombia,” followed by thinking silently to myself, “not Columbia.”

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… And way over there, Centro district. Cartagena de Indias


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Improvise and Dive

For a volunteer living on a peso-pinching budget, the past two months in Colombia have felt surprisingly rich while making trips to Cartagena de Indias and discovering things to do in Barranquilla. Adversely, the months have also felt like tests of patience and resilience, with frequent on-the-spot lessons in how to improvise. The heat of Barranquilla has cooked the thermal sensor of my Macbook, damaging the RAM and rendering it useless until a visit can be made to the Apple store.

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God Bless you, Jesus and your awesome copy shop

New challenges in email communication, maintenance of two websites, and preparation of final exams, as well as the effort to keep up with friends and family, are proving to be extremely difficult. Relying on older, pay-by-the-hour PC’s with low-resolution screens and grinding processors is painful but bearable, as I consider the alternative which is… nothing.

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by some miracle… THIS happened

As a teacher and a writer, working without a computer must be how a runner feels with a severe limp: the handicap is not enough to stop everything, but it definitely impedes speed, distance, achievements and endurance.

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Running man in Cartagena photo ©KateDana 2014

Fortunately, to a determined runner (or teacher and writer) with a plan, it’s not the end of the world, though it often seems like a cross between torture and a difficult test. Regardless, it is possible to assemble a list of recent non-computer-assisted accomplishments:

Exploring without traveling. Frequent visits to the George Washington Library at the Centro Colombo Americano mean enjoying back issues of Condé Nast Traveler and thick, glossy books about the history of Colombia. While discovering new places to visit and smelling Hermès perfume sample pages, it’s also nice to indulge in the icy air conditioning of the library.

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Books at the Colombo Americano library

In addition to escaping through magazines, I recently read two compelling, 800+ page books by Stieg Larsson: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Anticipated next, the final book in this excellent trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. 

Cleaning, donating and downsizing. In preparation for December departure as a WorldTeach volunteer, there are papers to sort through, a year’s worth of faded, ill-fitting clothes to donate, and the clever schematics of fitting everything from souvenirs to unworn winter clothing into two small suitcases. The once-tight skirts and no-longer brilliant blouses will go, but the Alpaca hats and aji amarillo will stay.

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5th grade graduation at Hogar Mariano

Gifting Candy and Giving Thanks. The 5th grade students of Distrial Colegio Hogar Mariano graduated this week, transitioning from primeria into secondaria. With little Congratulations! tied to the sticks of Tipitin paletas, its obvious these students definitely deserve more, but with 160 of them, the gift of candy is realistic on a volunteer budget.

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Tipitin graduation congratulations pop assembly

The fantastic teachers in the school received colorful, laminated collage bookmarks, handmade and decorated with words in English. At the graduation ceremony, the students and faculty presented me with the humbling surprise of a monetary gift.

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Bookmarks for the teachers at Colegio Distrial Hogar Mariano

Accepting the gift in front of hundreds of parents and students, I joked that it might have been better to get me a Spanish dictionary, which I received the following day. Although this volunteer year seemed impossible at times, it has all worked out, with many thanks to Hogar Mariano for being a great school.

with the Pulido Escorcia family. I had both girls in class. LOVE

With the Pulido Escorcia family. I taught both girls this year. LOVE

Listening to Audiobooks. Not everything can be done on the iPhone, but it is possible to download some audio books. Bossypants, written by comedian Tina Fey, tells stories of growing up nerdy, befriending theater geeks, and adoring her father from an early age. These wild true tales read by Fey in a witty delivery and interspersed with hints of sarcasm, catapult listeners into fits of laughter.

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Cocina 101 with Andrea, Shauna and Marina

Learning to Cook Colombian. On a Saturday afternoon, WorldTeach volunteers Andrea and Shauna joined my host Marina and me for lessons in cooking Colombian food, including arroz de coco, patacones and jugo de maracuya. Marina previously taught me how to make arepas and cocada blanca. An experienced cocinara, she serves a Bandeja Paisa so delicious it would make Juan Valdez blush.

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pouring agua de coco into the arroz

Secured Work for 2015. Somehow, without a computer, I managed to secure an opportunity in Cartagena which will return me to Colombia in 2015. Through the help of two generous friends, one miraculous Skype interview, several emails, and a teaching website (maintained through internet café PC’s), I greatfully accepted a position teaching with Aspaen Gimnasio Cartegena de Indias. Yes, among the constant confusion of living in Colombia, the decision to return in 2015 and work with Gimnasio came easily, enhanced by a love of Champeta and Vallenato, arepas and Pony Malta.

Pretty school. Photo Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias

Pretty school. Photo Gimnasio Cartagena de Indias

As the volunteer year comes to an end, there are still things left to do, like sifting through dried up board markers and maintaining this blog at dial-up Internet speeds. While it’s true Colombia may have cooked my Macbook, diving back into this sizzling country means there is still more to experience in South America. Life ahead still feels like the crap shoot that usually it is, but now it’s happening one inspiring, challenging, improvising moment at a time.

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Colombia! The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay… and paint like this


Go Go Romantico

The Lonely Planet guide to South America mentions Barranquilla in a few short paragraphs, remarking on its famous Carnaval, and describing the city as “one big traffic jam.”  Living here for the past year, admittedly there are few things to do, but the city has some interesting attractions worth noting, like the Museo Romantico.

A trip to the Museo Romantico on a breezy Wednesday afternoon was a leisurely walk from Portal del Prado, just past Universidad Simon Bolivar. The gorgeous Centro Cultural Comfamiliar del Atlantico, located next to the museum, is a reminder that, despite its reputation as a party town, Barranquilla is a city with some sophistication among its festive atmosphere.

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outside the Centro Cultural Comfamiliar del Atlantico

 

After receiving the $10000 COP (required) “donation,” a museum docent turned on the lights to a small room, revealing life-sized cardboard cutout of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as a thick, concrete statue of the celebrated author’s smiling face and upper body wrapped in a silky Colombian flag.

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Photo of Museo Romantico © off2colombia.com

Posters and paintings of Marquez share wall space devoted to Spanish-born painter Alejandro Obregón, and journalist/activist Josè Felix Fuenmayor, and glass book cases house various editions of Marquez’s titles, including Cien Años de Solituda and Vivir para contarla.

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Smiling Gabo. Follow me on Instagram

Among this rich collection of original material published by The Barranquilla Group – writers, journalists, and philosophers who congregated in the city during the twentieth century – are newspaper clippings in albums following the activities of the group throughout their most active years.

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Moving through the museum, the adjacent room holds archives of the Himno de Barranquilla including what appears to be the original manuscript on brown, tattered paper. Written by Amira de la Rosa in 1942, the hymn celebrates Barranquilla’s beauty and potential as a growing port city. A large painting of conductor Ezequiel Rosado hangs on the wall over an antique piano layered in lace doilies and dust.

Watch a video with many photos of life in La Arenosa and listen to el himno here.

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Amira, is that your funeral dress?

Next to the hymn room, a large office space filled with aging electronics and artifacts of technology – several rotary dial telephones, tube televisions and typesetting equipment – emits a slightly metallic, mildewing plastic smell, vaguely comforting and similar to that of a basement library or ancient printing press.

 

Beyond two large wooden doors, a wide hallway features several mannequins in glass enclosures, dressed in gowns from past Reinas de Carnaval, as well as Jesùs and some unusual, demon-like creatures.

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Throughout the bottom floor of the Museo Romantico, the eclectic method of organization in some appears to be “put that next to this”; surprisingly, this keeps the museum from being boring: as visitors eyes dart from one unique “treasure” to the next, they combine to make this a unique establishment featuring a diverse collection of artifacts.

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Detail of the murals that line the walls of Museo Romantico

The second floor of the museum has several displays ranging from beautiful dioramas of Barranquilla to peculiar exhibits of military and naval history. Nearly half of the floor is dedicated to a presentation by the CUC, featuring the evolution of Barranquilla as the 4th largest city in Colombia, with miniature replicas of the area when it was first settled to its current, modern day inhabitation.

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A political costume favorite of Barranquilla’s Carnaval

The military and naval rooms hang heavy with a slightly musty gunpowder smell. Heavy artillery, uniforms and historic newspapers evoke gloom, but turn the corner and suddenly you are surrounded by the colors of Carnaval, Barranquilla’s most popular annual cultural event.

 

The Museo Romantico appears to have the humble need for resources mixed with the charm of original, historical objects.

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Clown and Cumbia dancer at Museo Romantico

From scary clowns and Cumbia dancers to muñecas and Reyanos, a visitor could get lost for hours among the wigs, fabric, sequins and bows of original Carnaval costumes worn by aging, dated mannequins.

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Death watches over Rey Civico 2012-2013 Ruben Angulo Montoya

With its unique artifacts and curious smells, the Museo Romantico is worth a visit, but considering its dim lighting and eerie mannequins, it is questionable if any visitor could spend an entire night here.

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Hangin’ with one of many Carnaval kings

The Museo Romantico is located at Carrera 54 # 59-199 in downtown Barranquilla. Phone 5-3399000. Open most weekdays 8 am – 5 pm. Donation: $10000 COP adults, $5000 kids 5 and under


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Of Luxury…and Loss

After the pedagogical rush of Bilingual Week in Barranquilla, it seemed appropriate to take a break in Cartagena, a city with the addictive pull of raw beauty and fascinating culture. Leaving late on a Saturday afternoon, the ride via Berlinas in drenching rains was slow, as the windows resembled driving through an automatic car wash. Arriving in the evening to traffic-heavy streets, the final destination was a welcomed sight, with a view from an 8th floor apartment in BocaGrande overlooking the bay.

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Sunset over la bahia… ahhh Cartagena

Heading out for the evening, we traversed the cobblestone streets of San Diego and Getsemani before settling on Bourbon Street, a drinkery crammed with rustic wooden tables serving Louisiana-styled pub grub, and waitresses dressed like the burlesque girls of historic New Orleans. Having visited the Crescent City many times before, I appreciated the parody of this Bourbon Street, thousands of miles away from its namesake location.

Inside "Bourbon" Photo: Jetsemani Travel

Inside “Bourbon” Photo: Jetsemani Travel

The night included a live band covering 90’s songs in English and a Halloween costume contest, but the real highlight of the evening was meeting photographer Andrès Lesmes and his assistant/model, Carolina. As Carolina whirled through the crowd in her feathered headdress and glittery makeup, Andres told funny stories between champagne toasts celebrating his birthday. The night pulsated into early morning hours until, finally, our respected parties separated and disappeared for home.

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Long lounge chairs await you. Photo © TripAdvisor.com.es

Sunday morning Andres and Carolina whisked me away to a beautiful part of Cartagena heading towards Barranquilla, a small area known as Manzanillo. Upon arrival to award-winning Karmairi Hotel Spa, we were welcomed with warm smiles. Beyond the main veranda, a beautiful beach stretched out, appearing nearly-deserted for miles. After placing two large lounge chairs side by side, a chic waiter dressed in all-white asked politely if we wanted anything, and nodded as I requested an arepa: Colombian street food at a boutique beach resort. Several minutes later, the waiter delivered a gorgeous circle of golden goodness, and I gleefully devoured the cheese-filled pocket, grateful for this moment of gourmet simplicity.

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mmm behold my arepa de la playa

Following breakfast, Andres elaborated on his photography, which includes travel, hotels, hospitality and food with clients in cities like Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta and Cartagena. Hours passed as the sun made its way to directly overhead. Naval servicemen running along the beach timed each others’ barefoot sprints.

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Pretty nice for a photo taken on an iPhone

Laughter erupted when someone mentioned the absence of champeta music blasting from a pica and the lack of vendors hawking necklaces and buñelos – characteristics of the lively atmosphere on beaches along the Caribbean Coast.

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Fresh fish for lunch! Served fried with coconut rice, patacones and ensalada.

Karmairi definitely reveals a unique view of Colombia, one that lends itself to beauty and charisma. It is almost impossible to not feel thankful during a day of relaxation and enjoyment. While there are other places to spend a Sunday in Cartagena, Karmairi was perfect at this moment, offering large white beds to lounge on and a superb staff to thank for their services.

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relax and have a nap on the beach

Having volunteered my time and lived on a tight budget nearly an entire year in this gorgeous country, I was especially humbled and grateful to God that I was experiencing what is definitely not a typical day for me at the beach.

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simple beauty at Kamairi

After a torrential, hour-long rainstorm spent sheltered under a small seafront cabana, the sun finally poked through the clouds as the afternoon crowd of local families began to arrive, parking their cars sequentially along the top of the beach.

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gorgeous tranquility at Kamairi

Following a quick splash in the bamboo-walled outdoor shower of Karmairi, I waited for William to arrive in his taxi for the drive to Cartagena’s bus terminal. As the evening light settled along the historic city walls, a sense of serenity and gratitude evolved from another fascinating weekend in Colombia.

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the resort hotel at dusk. Photo © Karmairi resort

My average days are filled with catching city buses, walking on broken sidewalks, and dodging mototaxis. In eleven months as a volunteer here, I have enjoyed few moments of luxury in places like Karmairi, making it almost dreamlike when I do.  In the past two months my computer and camera have both broken, leaving me to rely on pay-by-the-hour Internet cafes and blogging via iPhone. For anyone who’s ever had to survive on minimal technology, it’s easy to agree, after we become accustom to working a certain way, having to adapt to another is almost debilitating. Sure, it’s not horrific, but it definitely is an inconvenience.

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Photo of Carolina in Cartagena ©Andres Lesmes

While these setbacks are possibly preparing me for my next life as a Digital Nomad, typing on a 4×3 inch qwerty keyboard is no luxury. At this rate, one would think the efforts of a travel writer may as well go on hiatus, but this post is proof you can get results with determination.

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Don’t laugh, this is one of my five cell phones

From a day lounging at Kamari to nights blogging by smart phone, everything that is eloquent and humbling about living here equally distributes a personal adoration for the diversity of Colombia… and all that there is to experience about being here.

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En la playa con Andres, gracias amigo para todo


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Bilingual and Bewildered

Picture 1While it may seem from this blog that all I do as a volunteer in Colombia is teach and travel, there are some rewarding obligations as an educator, which is the true basis of my year living in this gorgeous country. After a week of diving into clear blue waters of picturesque Isla San Andres, Colombia, came a week of diving into language teaching during Barranquilla’s VI Semana Distrital de Bilinguismo (6th Annual Biligual Week), 27 – 31 octubre 2014.

My contribution to Bilingual Week started early as I developed  a presentation titled Bilingual Bloglingual: Using a Blog to Promote Bilingual Learning in the Primary ClassroomBeginning in late September with a simple web page and blog, I added students’ work and information about naming the url, links to building a web site and finding a suitable host, and suggestions for maintaining what you’ve created.

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The weekend before Bilingual Week, I made another trip to historic Cartagena, returning to Barranquilla to find my Macbook has a case of bad RAM. Days earlier, my trusty Canon PowerShot stopped opening its lens window, meaning no more photography during frequent travels. Rather than think of how to write a travel blog after the loss of these items, I brainstormed how to improvise. I gave thanks for printing the handouts for Bilingual Bloglingual in advance, as well saving all files to an external drive.

Fortune favors the prepared mind.
– Louis Pasteur, French Chemist (1822-1895)

Bilingual Week in Barranquilla began on Monday, October 27th as teachers, businesses and administrators gathered at reception center Combarranquilla to enjoy five business days filled with workshops, lectures, presentations and awards. If you think seminars and meetings are boring, you haven’t been to one in Colombia, where most activities are fueled by tinto, interspersed with song and integrated with dance. Every day of Biligual Week was another exciting opportunity to learn helpful information and enjoy inspiring entertainment.

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Mi Jefe! Secretario de Educación José Carlos Herrera Reyes

After a ceremonious welcome from the Secretario de Educación José Carlos Herrera Reyes,  several companies and schools delievered presentations. Ser Bilingue, a company that offers intensive teaching courses to schools, wowed the crowd by demonstrating their pedagogy through songs, while Peace Corps volunteer Andrea Doyle from Colegio Distrital Gabriel Garcia Marquez dazzled the audience with a unique version of the Rainbow Behavior Chart for classroom management.

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The Lady in the (far right) Front Row:  With my campaneros de WorldTeach

The actual presentation for Bilingual Bloglingual was a short but thorough slideshow supported by printed handouts. Since information about the location, facilities or equipment was not provided in advance, I prepared as I have before, teaching in Mexico and Colombia: expect there will be nothing, and celebrate if there is something.

Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident.
– Dale Carnegie 

Fortunately, Combarranquilla was equipped with large screens and projection rooms, but having discovered this the day of the presentation (and the day after my Macbook stopped working), I improvised with printed handouts, delivering 45 minutes of facts and entertainment. While it was hard to judge if the audience enjoyed what was being said, it was a pleasure to talk about using a blog in the classroom.

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WorldTeach volunteer Shauna Dillon and some of her beautiful students

Creating a presentation with little information on the available resources or environment caused me to think about my time in Colombia and the challenges that occur on a daily basis. Everything from power outages and no water, to my now inoperative Macbook and broken Canon Powershot, have made it clear we often have to find workable solutions to life regardless of the cirucumstances. Right now I’m struggling to move forward and calculate grades, update websites and write this blog, but I am also rediscovering things like reading novels, cooking delicious meals and creating collages.

TGWTDT

A little “light” reading on isla San Andrés

The quote by English critic and novelist Aldous Huxley is a great mantra to apply during unpredictable moments:

“Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him,”  

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Ahhh yah, la bebida de los campeones and Shakira!

Most of this year has been spent discovering creative ways to teach English, adjusting to life in Barranquilla, and getting lost on buses en route to some of South America’s most beautiful beaches. With recent events – both celebrations and setbacks – it is bccoming clearer what may be the real reason behind being here, an idea that surfaced ironically during the 6th Annual Bilingual Week:

Life isn’t about what is happening to me in Colombia, it’s about what I am doing with what happens to me in Colombia.

To this I say, traer el.


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Isla San Andrés: paradiso en Colombia

“Believe. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars,
or sailed to an uncharted island, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”

― Helen Keller, American author (1880 – 1968)

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Arriving on La Isla, gracias Copa Air!

Teaching in Colombia recently provided more generous time off from school, and a week in the breezy Caribbean to escape the constant heat of Barranquilla seemed perfect. Straining a volunteer budget to pay slightly more for a nonstop ticket with Copa Airlines was worth it to avoid plane-hopping and crazy departure times. Copa delivered an adequate 90 minute flight over open, deep-blue waters from balmy Barranquilla to gorgeous Isla San Andrés.

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(Love at) first sight of Playa Centro

Arriving to Isla San Andrés felt like dreamy deja vu.  Having lived in the Caribbean as a child, hearing friendly islanders speak with beautiful Creole-Caribe accents, saying “mon” (man) and “dos det der,” (those right there) evoked vivid memories. The look of brilliant smiles, the smell of salty sea air and the sounds of a beachfront calypso band resonate and linger… long after a visit to the islands.

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Day One: Playa Centro, Johnny Cay y El Acuario

Sprat Bay, also called Playa Centro, sits at the edge of the downtown area, near discount tourist stores and duty-free shops. Mesmerizing blue waters and white sands beckon provocatively, calling for the traditional taste of a Cuba Libre and the aromatic blend of cocoa butter on tanned skin.

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mmm Cuba Libre in a can

Walking the beach with a smile and clipboard, William approached sunbathing tourists, selling an afternoon lancha to El Acuatico, one of many Isla San Andrés attractions. Around 3:00 pm, a boat launched from the nearby marina, carrying the Capitan, thirteen Argentines, two Chileans, a family of four from Manisales, and one Gringa from Barranquilla.

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The view boating out to Johnny Cay

The island is ours. Here, in some way, we are young forever.”
― Emily Lockhart, American author (born 1967)

Johnny Cay is a splendid little island, on this day scattered with tourists and locals seeking shelter under palm tree palapas from an afternoon thunderstorm . The group spent a few minutes at Bibi’s Place before walking to the next smaller island and El Acuatico.

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A little Rastafarian rain

Walking in Neoprene water shoes, holding a bag of beach possessions over your head, trekking  through ocean tides surrounded by large fish and manta rays feels both ridiculous and fun. Crowds of families gathered on the shores of El Acuatico drinking Aguila and socializing while in the water one medium-sized manta ray flopped loosely in the arms of a man, posing for photos with swimmers.

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El Acuatico… the short walk from Johnny Cay

During the return journey from Johnny Cay, the fearless blue eyed capitan stopped to tell the history of the cay and its ecosystem while a tour guide dove into  open waters, emerging with a glorious, hefty estrella del mar.

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Capitan Blue Eyes! An enthusiastic guide

Passing the starfish around the small boat, it seemed a magic connection happened between the passengers and the early evening sea. Collectively, everyone cheered on Max from Argentina, tempting him to make the next dive in (he didn’t).

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La Gringa, Estrella de Mar and Max de Argentina

Day Two: La Piscina 

Many buses in Isla San Andrés are no bigger than 16-passenger cargo vans with a front and a back door; somehow they miraculously seem to hold up to 30 passengers… with the doors open. A short bus ride from the esquina in El Centro is La Piscina, a tourist attraction worthy of noting for its eclectic history and friendly propietor, Leard Pomare Myles.

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Diving into La Piscina

The land of La Piscina has been in Pomare’s family for centuries; in 1971 he decided to create a tourist friendly area to celebrate the natural pool where exotic fishes gather and swells crash upon rocky cliffs. After Hurricane Joan ripped through in 1988, Pomare erected an open-walled snorkel rental shelter and restaurant offering delicious fresh seafood for hungry pool-jumpers. With a beautiful relaxing pool area and historical island information courtesy of Pomare and his sons, La Piscina has become an established landmark.

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Coctel de Camarones and a Crab Empanada. Delicious!


 Notes on La Noche

Isla San Andres may lack big-city lights but it has a vibrant nightlife, and is relatively safe for walking around after dark. Motos are everywhere, flying over the asphalt, carrying up to four passengers, all dressed to impress. Discotecas like Éxtasis and Coco Loco boast their biggest crowds from Thursday to Sunday nights. El Viajero, a hostel group with locations in Colombia and Uruguay, occupies a 5-story building in El Centro, with a generous, patio bar on the top floor.

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Ragga Ragga DJ’s y Dancing. Photo: TripAdvisor

Refreshing Caribbean night breezes blow through El Viajero as the DJ spins popular music and the bartender serves drink specials. A few nights during the week, El Viajero has free salsa classes, interactive games and Ragga Ragga dance lessons led by the enthusiastic staff, getting travelers warmed up for a night out on the island.

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San Andrés at night from El Viajero’s rooftop bar

La Musica: Ragga Ragga

Music is prominent on Isla San Andrés, offering a spicy hybrid of Nigerian, African, Caribbean and Colombian influences. The “island sound,” is a blend of calypso, soca and reggae with vallenato, salsa, hints of gospel music and United States R&B, resulting in a chaotic mix that inspires people to dance and sing.

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Playlist for a week in Isla San Andrés

With the local accent this:

I don’t understand one thing when I try to listen to a dub song
I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried and I know that something’s wrong
Anytime the DJ decides to play, one hand goes up in the air
Everybody’s chanting, doing the Bogle, oh what an atmosphere

…sounds like this:

Adols anas talwa tink wana tai tu lisen tu wa song
Ay trai an ai trai an ai trai an ai trai an ai nu dats somtin wrong
Evry taim de DJ dis ai tu, pay uan han gou ap in da eir
Eny vary chanyin duin de bugel o wat an atmosfer

– from the song “Ragga Ragga” by Red Plastic Bag

Ragga Ragga, a Jamaican-based sub-genre of reggae, is mostly electronic music with a beat similar to hip hop. Sampling other songs, Ragga Ragga blends to form “ragamuffin music,” or “raggamuffin” deriving its name from the music of Jamaica’s “ghetto dwellers.” Tourists and locals love dancing the bow-legged, chest-pumping movements, trying to decipher the words as they sing.


Day Three: Iglesia Bautista, La Loma

The historic Iglesia Bautista, founded in 1844, is a small church perched on a hill near the neighborhood of La Loma. While not especially dazzling or architecturally striking, Iglesia Bautista provides a stunning view of nearly both sides of Isla San Andrés; with its hilltop location, the church may be seen from many spots around the island.

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Iglesia Bautista and a single hibiscus

Even on rainy days, the humble little church seems to glow proudly on its generous grassy terrain. Single-paned windows tinted in primary colors and a simple congregation with dark wood pews make Iglesia Bautista is a sweet reminder of the early days gone and faith still present in Isla San Andrés.

igelsia-inside

Looks like the inside of the churches on Antigua. Cute.

Near the Iglesia is the town of La Loma, with multicolored wooden houses and children playing futbol as mototaxis zip by on the main road. Some houses feature two stories and wraparound porches, while others offer lunches of Comida Tipica de Isla, like Rondon, a traditional stew with pescado de leche de coco (fish cooked in coconut milk).

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La Loma, Los Motos and El Perro!

Day Four: Rocky Cay

Cayo Rocoso, located at Sound Bay, is a picturesque beach with calm shallow waters and soft bleached sand. Upon arrival, it appears to be a private beach for guests of Decameron, but it is actually a public space where $10000 COP will get you a lounge chair for the day. Nearby is a full bar and tienda for drinks and snacks. rockycaywelcomeIn the water, several meters from the beach, is the large rusty cadaver of the ship Nicodemus, once owned by Aristotle Onassis in the 1980’s. The rumored tale is that Nicodemus suffered damage during a storm and was being towed near Cartagena when it split into three parts, two sinking to become reefs and the third a rusty monument to the shipping tycoon and his many adventures.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
– Aristotle Onassis, Greek Businessman (1906 – 1975)

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Catamaran and Jet Ski, another way to the little island

Between the shipwreck and beach is a tiny island with a natural aquatico, offering visitors a safe spot to snorkel among coral and barriers. Another walk through crystal blue waters carrying a bag overhead gets you from Rocky Cay to the little island.

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The hulking mass of Nicodeums, seen just beyond the little island

Randolph, a San Andrés native, works on the island renting snorkel masks and diving down for anemones and spiny starfish with visiting children whose parents swim nearby. On this day he presented a huge sea urchin for our group to hold.

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Rocky Cay: The view walking from the beach to the island

Randolph told the story of the island, which was once occupied by a man for 9 years, who lived in a small house and fell in love with a Chilean woman. Though the little house is now gone, and the couple now resides in the city of San Andrés, a large flag from Chile flies on over the tiny island.

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Randolph with La Gringa, Valentina and Eloisa de Barranquilla

Days Five: Moto Tour

For the final days of this visit to San Andrés, Randolph from Rocky Cay offered a tour of the island by mototaxi, which turned out to be an inexpensive way to see some remaining areas through the eyes of a local. Zipping through traffic of El Centro, out to a road bordered by beach on one side and jungle on the other brought miles of smiles.

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Randolph and the day’s tour vehicle. Fun!

First passing the Casa Museo – a museum showing life as it once existed on the island in a traditional home. Two women in casual beach sarongs smiled and called to golf carts driven by tourists, “Ayrie, come to the Casa, mon!” encouraging them to stop.

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Continuing on to pass Morgan’s Cove, Randolph stopped at a small reggae-themed coctel bar which occupied both sides of the road – an ingenious way to catch traffic in either direction.

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The little coctel bar, street-side

The owner of the coctel bar busily swept the area, happily greeting guests and suggesting a fresh coco loco libation. Visitors took photos and relaxed in the swings and hammocks overlooking the opulent tiny private beach.

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Mini Paradise across from the coctel bar, beach-side

Riding on revealed the huge rocky cliffs in the center of San Andres, Cerro La Loma, also known as El Cliff, which some say is due to the eruption of a volcano which threw rocks older than the seafloor to the surface, creating the island. A massive bulk sprouting jungle vines and menacing uneven terrain, it is easy to imagine El Cliff as the set of Peter Benchley’s The Island, were it not for the beautiful houses and small farms surrounding its base.

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View of El Cliff from the back of a fast moto

Reputations rise and fall almost as regularly as the tides.
Peter Benchley, American Author (1940 – 2006)

Day Six: Adios, Isla San Andres

Walking to the airport, as travelers towed roll-on luggage over rocky sidewalks, the Caribbean sky beamed a brilliant blue with giant billowy clouds. A group of locals eating at a corner tienda discussed the results of the previous night’s friendly partido, where Colombia won over El Salvador 3-0. “Den it wa oba, ba Argenten, don cry!” a man laughed, mocking the futbolistas.

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As the departing plane jetted upward beyond Isla San Andrés and its turquoise seas, white sands, delightful people, infectious music and savory dishes, its hard to imagine anyone leaving this paradise who don cry at least a little. Ragga Ragga!

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” 
― Ralph W. Sockman, American author (1889 – 1970)

adios2


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Livin’ La Vida Ocho

She will wear you out, livin’ la vida loca ocho, Come On!
Livin’ la vida loca ocho, Come on!
She’s livin’ la vida loca ocho.

– Ricky Martin, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (revised) 

colombiasoyyo

Street art, like Colombian pride, runs deep in La Ocho.

In April 2014,  I moved to Barrio Alboraya in La Ocho, a neighborhood in the south of Barranquilla. I found my new home thanks to Airbnb and many hit-and-miss home visits that had me running all over La Arenosa. While it has the reputation of being peligroso y pobre (dangerous and poor), most of the people that live here would be insulted at this idea and invite you to visit and see for yourself. Outside the loud discotecas and corner tiendas, beyond the crazy divided lanes of traffic, life is actually good in La Ocho. ¿Quieres saber más? 

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La Location

The main street, Carrera 8 (La Ocho) is flanked by two main avenues, Calle 30 (Boyacá) and Calle 45 (Murillo Toro). The area known as La Ocho is composed of several small barrios including La Magdalena, El Campito, and La Alboraya. Clearly, Googlemaps doesn’t have a Googleclue about La Ocho, however it does have several of the neighborhoods listed.

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Some say La Ocho also includes La Victoria and La Union, or basically the areas between Carrera 14 and Carrera 6, but this — like many things in Barranquilla – often depends on who you ask.

La Shopping

La Ocho doesn’t have the famous designers and three-story glamour of Buenavista, or the vast space and deep discounts of Unico, but it does have some options for shopping, including the event-hosting Panorama and, just a little further south, the indoor-outdoor Metro Centro. There are two Olimpica grocery stores on Carrera 36B and a Jumbo on Calle 30, but the best shopping in La Ocho is the little stores along the main street.

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Plan Separe, in case you want to put those overalls on layaway

Perhaps not as picturesque as it sounds, the main street and its little stores provide the neighborhood with local options for just about anything, from pharmaceuticals and fresh fruits to casual clothes and hardware. Best of all, the prices in the local stores are generally reasonable to barato (low).

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La Plaza features giant fruit salads y más

For your office needs, visit Caribean.net, where Jesús offers inexpensive impresiones and fotocopias más rapido (very fast prints and copies). Is your cat coughing up hairballs again? Make an appointment to see the good doctors at Veterinara la 8, where dogs often arrive for their check-ups via mototaxi.

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Look closely – those boxers have mustaches

Finally, for the best shopping in la Ocho, don’t miss El Rematazo near Calle 36B. This tienda de varidades sells everything from households to clothes to beauty supplies. The selection and stock in El Ramatazo puts Dollar Tree to shame, and rumor has it that the WorldTeach volunteers living in La 8 are regular customers of El Rematazo, no doubt for its decent papeleria and personal service.

elrematazo

The outside is only the tip of this amazing shopping iceberg

La Rumba

Tell anyone in Barranquilla you live in La 8, and their first response is usually, “ah, La Rumba!” La Ocho is famous for it’s huge discotecas and corner tiendas, blasting music at all hours, serving copious amounts of Aguila, Club Colombia and Aguardiente day and night.

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True, the original is in the north, but this is La Troja de la 8.

The giant clubs, including Pink Panther, King Kong and PKDOS rise above other venues like La Troja, Estadero Super Rico de la 8 and the appropriately named Beer Party.

ocho-panther

“I’m gonna stand here til the club opens tonight! Just kidding.”

You haven’t truly lived in Barranquilla until you’ve experienced Vallenato music at top volume until 4 a.m. on a Saturday night, especially when it’s right next to your house. Sleep comes with experience, and miraculously your brain eventually tunes the music out.

Las Buses y Los Autos

It’s true much of the traffic in La Ocho is mototaxis or people cutting through from Calle 30 to Calle 45, however it is also heavy with buses on regular routes, which is fantastic if you live without a car. Many of the top companies in Barranquilla serve La 8, including Sobusa with its giant old school buses that run from the top of the city to the bottom and back, the dark green and yellow former tour buses of Loyola, and Embusa with its vintage dark blue and orange buses.

embusabusa

There’s also the giant yellow buses of Transurbar (Maria Modelo), and the gold-and-black La Carolina buses, which conveniently end their route at the Terminal de Transporte. If you’re not sure which bus to take, visit the Transporte Público Barranquilla website and go crazy trying to figure out the best route for your destination, or just do as the locals do… ask someone on the street.

calle-buspass

Typical site: a mototaxi swerves in-between two buses at a corner turn.

No neighborhood would be complete without a body shop (would it?), but the one in La Ocho is worlds apart from anything you’d find at Earl Scheib. In La Ocho near Calle 41 there is a drive up automotive “shop” without walls, meaning… it’s in the street. Literally. Six (sometimes seven, depending on how busy) days a week, several men cover glass with papers, hand sand, prime, and spray paint cars to a gleaming finish.

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Saturday, 7:00 a.m. Hand sanding and firing up the compressor

Though they’ve been spotting applying the occasional rattle-can spot job, most of the drive-up paint work uses a compressor, which sucks so much energy at times it has been known to blow the power out on the street nearby. Amazingly, the compressor stays operative, filling the air with paint fumes and dust as the rest of the street waits for the energy to be revived.

La Conclusion (La Vida)

So isn’t exactly the colorful tourist attraction of Carnaval, or the quiet and picturesque neighborhood of Ciudad Jardin, La Ocho is definitely a unique part of Barranquilla worthy of an afternoon visit for the adventure and experience. If your day in “La Rumba” happens to end with you dancing salsa all night at a giant club or celebrating a Juniors victory with the locals at a corner tienda, consider yourself lucky… after all, you’re living la vida ocho.

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Goooooal! I can’t even guess which futbolista this is.


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Pasar para Palomino

“My life is like a stroll on the beach…as near to the edge as I can go.”
– Henry David Thoreau American author and poet (1817 – 1862)

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Hello, Palomino. (PG-13 note: Delia’s other side has been edited out).

TripAdvisor has it’s Traveler’s Choice Awards of Best Beaches. Condé Nast Traveler has The Prettiest Beaches in the Caribbean. As for me, I have The Best Beaches to Explore on Long Weekends in Colombia… or at least I will have this list before my service ends in December.

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One of the lower cliffs along the road to Palomino

Often, teaching 4th and 5th grade takes its toll on me during the week, so when a 5-day weekend pops up, I scramble to pack a bag, catching the next bus (Berlinas, $12000 COP) out of Barranquilla to find adventure along the coast of this gorgeous country. Most recently, I traveled just beyond my beloved Playa el Rodadero to Palomino, a small beach town along the Troncal del Caribe in the department of Guajira, close to the revered Parque Nacional Tayrona but miles before the Wayuu occupancy along the peninsula.

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Caballo parking only. On the road from Santa Marta to Palomino.

The long weekend began in Playa el Rodadero, where days were once again spent relaxing by the pool of Carroll’s Hostel and basking in the beach sun, sampling mouth-watering cocada and gorging on the deliciousness of arepas asada sold near the Olimpica.

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Coco Loco, Playa el Rodadero. Never gets old.

Afternoons were perfect for shopping in the Mercado Artenisals, where unique gifts included gorgeous bolsitas de Mola and a miniature aluminum guacharaca (also called a guiro). Walking along the malecón sipping fresh juice and watching the sun set with the locals gave new meaning to the word “getaway.”

roda-taty

This delicious juice stand was named for the owner’s 22-year old granddaughter, Tatiana.

On Saturday night, a short taxi ride to Santa Marta provided mixing with friends on the rooftop deck at Hemingway with watching happy families and well-dressed couples fill the aptly-named Parque de los Novios.

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With Santa Marta musicians (far left) Pipe and Rolando, plus José Antonio from Carroll’s Hostel

The real adventure began after booking a night at the Tiki Hut hostel and boarding the bus to Palomino, accessed by first taking a bus from el Rodadero to Santa Marta and walking through the somewhat dodgy Mercado Publico (Centro). Armed with directions from Trotamunda’s Transatlantic Journey, this bus-walk-bus transfer was miraculously completed in less than an hour. Taking off with photos of sullen-looking Wayuu advertising tours to La Guajira and legroom only a four year old could enjoy comfortably, the breeze blew in cooler and crisper as the bus climbed along the coast.

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the less-than-luxurious (but fast and inexpensive) bus

Arriving 2 hours later to Palomino, the bus stopped just long enough for passengers to literally jump off with their backpacks as mototaxists swarmed the crowd, eager to transport people to nearby inns and hostels.

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a few minutes earlier they required horn blasts to vamos from the road

Rafael quickly offered a brilliant smile and a wide back seat for my overnight bag, and off we went down the dirt road to Tiki Hut, arriving to find cute houses lined along a grassy yard with large blue pool. Once settled into the loft bed of the Playa Cristal cabin, swimsuit on in mere seconds, it was beach time.

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With Rafael, mototaxist extraordinaire

A five-minute walk towards the sound of crashing waves revealed a beautiful long stretch of mostly unoccupied beach, the sun darting between large clouds overhead as Vallenato music blasted from a nearby restaurant.

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Up top in the Tiki Hut: the little bed under mosquito netting.

First attraction: the small cage of baby turtles, where visitors purchase the turtles for a few pesos each and “release” them in the ocean… though many look like they’ve been released more than once.

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“Pick me! Pick me!” Really, is there a difference?

Lured by the large “beds” made of wood and bamboo outside Finca Escondido, a crowd around one of the tables beckoned beachcombers to join them for sips of Ron Medellin cuba libres and talk of travel… New Yorkers, Austrians, Colombians and Germans welcomed those passing by, including this Californian-gone-Colombian.

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The Colombian kitchen and coctel bar at Finca Escondida

During the week, the beach of Palomino is quiet most of the day, with the exception of a few travelers around the pool at the Dreamer Hostel and groups taking jeep rides for an afternoon of tubing on the Palomino River.

“The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.”
-Isak Dinesen (Danish author 1885-1962)

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Nadar es Peligroso! But loving the beach too much isn’t.

At night, the sands are lit with tiki torches and “patrolled” by locals with flashlights which may or may not be acting as security for safety reasons. Unfortunately for me, leaving my shoes beside one of the large beds by Finca Escondido for all of 10 minutes was a mistake, as they were stolen, along with my flashlight, leaving me to return barefoot in the dark to my hostel. I admitted to my carelessness of “dar papaya,” but was grateful for it not being more.

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Big wood beds outside Finca Escondida: bienvenidas

Palomino lacks many comforts, including a large grocery store for travelers who like to cook their own meals, leaving them to purchase pricey meals and snacks from the hostels and restaurants around the area. The sewage system, which not surprisingly is very primitive, leaves the dirt roads smelling swampy in many areas – fortunately, Rafael was an expert in avoiding these on the mototaxi ride back to the main road.

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Kogui tribes person in one of the few tiendas around Palomino

The next morning, after calling Rafael’s cell phone for a pick up, sipping a fresh guyabana juice and waiting for the bus to Santa Marta, left a moment to reflect on Palomino, giving it a ranking of 6 in a scale of 1 to 10 in Best Beaches to Explore on Long Weekends in Colombia, laughing at the thought that somewhere, someone’s mom or girlfriend is enjoying my $25000 COP shoes in style.

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California? Hawaii? Why no, this beauty is all Colombia…

“It’s such simple stuff, but… If I could stop the world and restart life, put the clock back, I think I’d restart it like this. For everyone.” 
― Alex Garland, The Beach


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Playa el Rodadero – Lanchas y la Gente

Weekend getaways in Colombia are often inexpensive and easy to do, especially last-minute. When a festivo hits on a Monday, you can bet much of the country is planning to travel, even if it’s just to the next municipio. Following the locals, I packed a bag early Saturday afternoon and boarded a Berlinas bus to Playa el Rodadero for the holiday fin de semana.

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The road from Barranquilla to Playa Rodadero – miles of quiet beach

After an uneventful 2-hour ride, arriving to Carroll’s Hostel, with its security-camera front gate and sprawling, bright white facade, was a treat for bus-weary eyes. A chat with the proprietor Alan revealed that Carroll’s hostel was, until recently, a private home for a family of four.

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Carroll’s Hostel – casa blanca bonita

Proving to have potential as a hostel, the large stone balconies stretched over a spacious patio, and a crystal-blue pool reflected the afternoon sun. Travelers relaxing on lounge chairs sipped chilled Club Colombias as a mature turtle greeted guests ascending the stone steps to reception.

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Romeo greets guests and keeps the grass low

Carroll’s optimum location is a short walk to the centro of Playa el Rodadero, where the evening included a treat of watching the sunset with locals and weekend vacationers. A ten-minute bus ride from historical Santa Marta, Rodadero is reminiscent of many classic beach towns, with a main avenue (and occasional chaotic traffic), reasonably priced souvenir shops and mid-priced restaurants serving local cuisine.

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¿Cuanto vale? Regular vs. Gringo price

In the heart of centro is a beach-boardwalk area dotted with street food stands, vendors squeezing mouthwatering jugos, and artisans selling their wares, including several working their crafts in demonstration. By day, the beach of Rodadero is filled with sunbathers soaking in the Colombian heat and families enjoying plates of pescado frito and patacones.

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Mucha gente en la playa – everyone into the water!

At night the beach is a spectacle of sand-dredged fiestas – groups gathered and dancing to cumbia, salsa and champeta, with the occasional live Vallento group playing traditional songs for tips. The dark spaces and light reflecting off the Bahia de Gaira makes for a moody, lively atmosphere, like a outdoor discoteca, interrupted humorously by happy kids running around in shorts and sandals.

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Rodadero at night: the party’s just getting started

Playa Rodadero tends to be over-crowded on many festivo weekends; a quick getaway to nearby Playa Blanca is easily had for $10000 COP and a 15-minute, slightly bumpy ride in an open-air lancha.

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Note the times on the ticket: don’t miss the last lancha back!

One company, Casa Linda SAS, has well-dressed muchachos strolling the beach, offering tickets and ushering clients to the nearby shack, where a serviceperson will slowly write out a fractura for you to board the next lancha. As with most beach purchases, Casa Linda SAS accepts cash only, preferably (like most Colombia sales) in small bills.

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Would you have been able to resist Oliver and his lancha tickets?

Gringos, take note: the lines for the lanchas fill up fast at the shore’s edge. If you’ve ever waited in line in Colombia, you may already know most people ignore the queue, meaning you may have to stand your ground (in the sand) to avoid being passed up several times as the boat is being boarded. On this day, the Casa Linda staff putting people on the boat were not helpful, so be assertive and get on that next lancha!

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Everybody on the boat! Gringos in the back.

Once in the lancha, wearing a life vest and getting the occasional face full of sea spray, you’ll notice the coast line is weathered and brown due to extremely low rainfall in the past year.

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Beautiful water against an arid shore

Rounding a stony corner, you’ll come to a beach bearing the same name as one near Cartagena: both Playa Blancas feature a small cove with crystal-clear warm water, bleached reefs of coral and soft, white sand.

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Playa Blanca, Magdalena – here we come little beach

On this festivo Sunday, the skies opened up and dumped rain on beach-goers, considerably strange having just passed the dry cliffs and terrain on the boat ride to Playa Blanca. “Húmedo sobre húmedo!” (wet-on-wet) a man was overheard shouting to his friend as he dove into the water. Clearly, the dark skies, which lasted about half an hour, didn’t shadow many spirits, and the beach continued to buzz with afternoon activity.

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Húmedo sobre húmedo, refreshing rains on Playa Blanca

Waking to a picturesque morning on the patio of Carroll’s Hostel meant savoring an aromatic cup of rich Colombian coffee before a brisk walk to the Olimpica on Carerra 4, where a man out front offers traditional arepas asadas generously stuffed with cheese for $1500 COP (75 cents US).

Not my actual arepa guy's asado. Photo: thisamericangirl.com

He didn’t have hot dogs. (Not my actual arepa guy’s asado.) Photo: thisamericangirl.com

Paired with a fresh-squeezed Maracuya juice ($3000 COP) from the boardwalk, this inexpensive breakfast was just enough fuel for the Berlinas return bus trip to Barranquilla. It should be noted that on festivo weekends, the ticket price jumps from $12000 COP ($6.00 US) to $18000 COP ($9.00 US), but don’t let this stop you from visiting Playa Rodadero: just one of many beautiful beach towns on Colombia’s gorgeous coast.

roda-chao

¡Adios, Playa Rodadero, nos vemos pronto, espero!


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Rains and Recreo in Turipaná

Summers in coastal Colombia can be excruciatingly hot, and although August feels a little less scorching than July, it’s still blazing most days. Attempting to beat the Barranquilla heat can be successful if recreational days are timed correctly to coincide with the weather.

Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire
Couldn’t conquer the blue sky

– “Weather With You” by Crowded House

One idea is to catch the colorful bus ($3700 COP) to Turipaná Comfamiliar, located between the beach towns of Playa Mendoza and Caño Dulce in Municipio Tubará.

Turipaná Bus

Just one of the many colorful buses to Turipaná. photo: Barranquilla or Bust

If you’ve never visited the area before, hop off the bus at the sight of the water slides and the giant billboard announcing Turipaná. Head to the security gate, pay the $3500 COP for entry, and take a short walk along the landscaped (but always slightly under construction) recreation area. After passing a few futbol fields, restaurants, and cute cabana houses, you will come upon a giant concrete-and-blue-tile piscina. 

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Is she having fun, or scared to death? En grande under a grey sky!

A ticket to enter the pool costs $5300 COP a person, but before planning a full day at the pool, take note: pool time… is pool timed. That’s right, on Sunday, $5300 COP gets a single swimmer 1.5 hours of splash time, nada más. Upon arrival, you may find you are “in-between” pool entry times and have to wait. Already laughing at the irony of this adventure? Just relax and visit the adjacent beach, accessible by walking through a small coconut grove, to pass some time in the ocean before returning to the pool. 

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Near the beach by Turipaná: cutie in the coconut grove

When the next hour change at the pool comes up, be sure to return to on time. Minutes after the gate opens, the pool may already be crowded and nearly lounge every chair occupied. Most of the large chaises are bolted down and several have no backrests, although parked under fiberglass umbrellas, these may be the most sensible ones available under the blazing sun, plus there is plenty of shaded grassy areas around the concrete.

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Walking off the wait time before the pool…

On the day of this visit, one unplanned detail appeared… rain. As the drizzle began, it seemed hard not to laugh (again) at the irony of a timed pool day under thunderclouds rapidly gathering overhead. In minutes, the rain began to fall at a steady pace, yet the pool remained filled with families and friends having fun, not noticing at all the thundering rumbles from beyond the sky.

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“Hmph. It’s not the same as an Aguardiente bottle, but…”

As the skies began to open up, a salvavida blew his whistle. In most parts of the US, this would signal clearing all swimmers, as the slightest threat of a storm means “Everybody out of the pool!”  Nope – this whistle-blower was just telling the big guy handing out shots of Aguardiente that giant glass bottles aren’t allowed near the water. Laughter ensued as Señor Aguardiente offered a shot to the salvavida, who politely declined.

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“…and then I offered the salvavida a shot!” Colombians are awesome.

Some people feel the rain — others just get wet.
– Roger Miller (American songwriter, 
1936 –  1992)  

At 3:15 exactly, the salavidas began blowing their whistles furiously like a sporting event gone wild. Waving people out, they cleared the pool in less than 10 minutes, including Señor Aguardiente. The fountains shut off and the water fell still as the rains began to subside. Waiting just outside the main gate, a group of people carrying float devices, coolers (at least one with Aguardiente) and soggy towels from the recent rain, anxiously anticipated their swim time.

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5 minutes left to get crazy in the pool

Returning from Turipaná to Barranquilla is simple, just walk to the main road and wait for the same colorful bus ($4500 COP) at the small tienda across from the gate. If you plan to visit in the future, it may be worth noting these tips:

1. Enter through the beach side of Turipaná Comfamiliar and avoid the (unnecessary) $3500 COP fee for the paved road to la playa.
2. Visit on a Saturday, when pool time is 2.5 hours (opposed to Sunday’s 1.5 hours) for the same price.
3. If bringing Aguardiente, buy it in the convenient Tetra Pak to drink (in moderation) poolside while splashing around.

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Spirits in TetraPak boxes. Another reason to love Colombia. Photo: Viaje por Latinoamerica

Finally, as you ride back to La Arenosa in the back of the bus, appreciate watching passengers doze off in their swimsuits and squishy clothes. Take time to sense a slight tone of gratitude among people enjoying a Sunday, feeling the breezes from the roadside, and simply being relieved, even temporarily, from the oven temperatures of Barranquilla.


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Cumpleaño en Cartagena

Celebrating a birthday in Colombia? Fantastic. Celebrating a birthday with 5 days and nights in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia? Priceless. Or at lease well worth the cost of my hostel, meals, bus fare and sightseeing. Arriving on a Friday after a long week of teaching, the hot Caribbean sun was just beginning to set in the deep blue sky. After taking the inexpensive but slow-paced Metrocar S.A. from the bus terminal, it was a relief to walk around the alluring Getsemani neighborhood again, my third visit since arriving in Colombia.

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Color and concrete in Getsemani

With the weekend finally here, the streets of this trendy neighborhood were crowded with tourists and locals enjoying happy hour drinks in the balmy, breezy evening weather.  Still reveling from 10 days in Lima, my friend suggested dinner at Restaurante Perú Mar, with its elegant atmosphere and great service.

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Stacked, savory causa with a side of cancha at Perú Mar

A friendly waiter brought traditional cancha as a snack on while the meals were being prepared. The ceviche, causa and Pisco Sours he graciously delivered were authentic, fresh and flavorful: every morsel deserved to be savored. On this Friday night, the restaurant was busy serving its delicious Perúvian fare accompanied by the live performance of Spanish-influenced guitar.

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Glowing dome of Catedral de San Pedro Claver and a streetworthy chiva

A walk around the gorgeous Plaza de Santa Teresa at night revealed the popular spot for couples and romantic tourists taking photos beneath the glow of the domed Catedral de San Pedro Claver. A stop by the vendors along Plaza de los Coches, many of whom stay open late, meant a sweet treat of sugary Cocada in several varieties, including fruity guayaba, lush arequipe and velvety panela.

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Dolls of Milk! Sold beside jars of cocada and other treats in Plaza de los Coches

Beaches Boca and Blanca

The next morning, heading out for a day at the beach meant stopping by Tienda Naturista Girasoles Restaurante Vegetariano, a wonderful discovery from my first visit to Cartagena. After selecting some of their tasty whole wheat empanadas stuffed with cheese and sautéed mushrooms, I darted through skinny streets, dodging wayward taxis, towards Plaza de los Coches to catch the bus.

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MMM vegtarian pizza and empanadas. Photo: Tienda Naturista Girasoles

As one might guess, there are several expansive beaches near Cartagena to choose from, including easy-to-reach Bocagrande, and white-sanded Playa Blanca. On this visit, an afternoon in Bocagrande included a bargained-down chaise lounge under a spacious umbrella from a friendly vendor named Jose, and cold, refreshing Aguila, rated by LatinZine as one of the most popular beers in Latin America.

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A view of Cartagena from Boca Grande

Several days later, Playa Blanca was accessed via what has become my own non-touristy route: Take the bus to Pasacaballos ($1700 COP), get off and hail a mototaxi ($10000 COP) for a ride over the convenient new puente and along the twisty roads of Isla Barú to arrive at a breathtaking beach. The entire trek takes about 1 hour and costs less than the boat tour or a hired taxi.

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The Pasacaballos bus carries everything from passengers to doors to giant bags of onions

To return, call the mototaxi (if he provides you with a number, some will) or walk to the top of the stairs, where several others are waiting. You can also catch a boat back, paying less than the tour groups, as lanchas and large tourist boats often need a few extra passengers (and pesos) at the day’s end. Bargain fairly and be safe!

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Smiles underneath a weathered helmet with my favorite mototaxi driver

Castillo Climbing and Jetlag Dancing

If the gorgeous cathedrals and picturesque plazas of Cartagena aren’t enough, take a taxi (or if you can bear the heat, a 15 minute walk) from el Centro to alluring, historic Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, built in 1536 by the Spaniards to defend the city. A massive structure on the hillside of San Lázaro, the castillo successfully guarded Cartagena for 121 years. Tickets range from $8000 COP for teachers to $17000 with a guided tour.

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La Popa Monastery seen in the distance from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Not only does Castillo San Felipe de Barajas offer spectacular views of the city but, because it was built by slaves, their quarters and underground tunnels may be seen and explored during a visit. There’s also a gigantic Colombian flag with an extraordinary view of Cartagena, prefect for a taking photo to show off your orgullo for this stunning, diverse country.

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I couldn’t resist. ¡Como te quiero, Colombia!

Finally, if you happen to be in Cartagena on a Tuesday night, consider yourself suerte, as you can catch the unique, free social event, Jetlag Tuesdays. Held at Explosíon Salsa, the weekly event offers a small, stylish space to practice your mad merengue moves, or learn something new, like the Costeño favorite Champeta.

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Paloma vuela en Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

On the night I attended with Laura from México, Alexis from Argentina and Joaquin from Perú, Jetlag Tuesday was cooking with great beats, drink specials and nonstop dancing, all of which we engaged in and enjoyed.

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Jetlag July 25th – photo: Jetlag Tuesdays

Making our way back through the quiet weeknight streets of Gestemani to El Viajero Hostel, our group agreed that Cartagena is an exquisite, historic city with a magic all its own worth experiencing at least once, or in this case, as many weekends as your volunteer year in Colombia allows…


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Whole Lima Love

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PAZ LIMA. I’m really here!

Since creating my goal of visiting all 21 Spanish-speaking countries, Perú has been a top contender, and I immersed myself in the culture of this beautiful, diverse country by watching films made in Perú, studying the unique history of the Incas, and sampling the incredible gastronomy at Peruvian food festivals many years before finally arriving this year in mid-June.

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Tourists and locals love parasailing over picturesque Miraflores

Working with a volunteer’s tiny budget, Macchu Picchu was out of the question; honestly, it’s always been Lima, with its high cliffs overlooking the ocean and dozens of historic plazas mixed with modern architecture, that captured my heart.

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Cheering on Argentina with free team shirts. Thanks, Pariwana!

Pardon el pardito de Pariwana

As with Guayaquil, Ecaudor, much of my travel in Peru was thwarted by the Copa Mundial, and I found myself at Pariwana Hostel in Miraflores watching their wall-size projection of the games for hours.

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Ricardo from Chile, part of the amazing Pariwana staff, with a special message on the patio – love!

Pariwana is a “party” hostel that may not suit some weary travelers, but for anyone wanting an international atmosphere, warm friendly staff, comfortable accommodations, free breakfast and hot showers – all at a reasonable price in the heart of Miraflores – it is the perfect place.

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Engineers Club of Peru in Miraflores – gorgeous

Parque de las Amores, Centro Commercial and Museo de la Nacío

Day one in Perú, I met my street-savvy guide Javier in Miraflores for the 12-block walk to the Malécon, with its spectacular views of Lima’s vast shoreline. We continued to the picturesque Parque de los Amores, filled with colorful mosaics and sculptures about love, and finished the day with a menú del dia meal near the trendy Calle de las Pizzas, a sliver of pedestrian-friendly street featuring small discotecas and bars.

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Mosaics of Parque de los Amores and Puente Eduardo Villena Rey

For several days,  Javier and I took combis to the main tourist attractions in Lima, including Plaza Mayor (Plaza de Armas), lined with spectacular buildings like the Palacio de Gobierno, the Archbishops Palace, the Cathedral of Lima and the Palacio Municipal.

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Spectacular architecture near Paseo De Los Heroes Navales

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Amor en Azul: blue Neo-Gothic Church Of La Recoleta

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Gorgeous salmon-hued school Colegio Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera

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Basilica Catedral de Lima in Plaza de Armas

One day, after a morning of perusing the stalls of Mercado Central, enjoying savory cheese samples washed down with cool Chica Morada – a purple corn drink spiced with cinnamon – Javier and I ran feverishly through the streets of Chinatown, arriving to Estadio Futbol Club just in time to watch Colombia beat Japan 4-1.

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queso, acetunas, and lots of leche from Gloria

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Javier and me! Plaza de Armas, Lima Peru

Another afternoon was spent perusing the Museo de la Nacío, which featured an incredible photography exhibit on the suffrage in Peru at the hands of Abimael Guzman, communist and founder of insurgent group Shining Path.

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Shining Path inmates perform a tribute to Guzman. Photo: Carteras magazine

The dark mood from the exhibit was instantly lightened with lunch at Cebicheria Manolito, a place favored by locals, serving fresh ceviche soaked in “leche de tigre”, a Peruvian delicacy.

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Cebiche fresca y frito. Look at that compote!

In addition to delicious ceviche, traditional food not to miss in Perú includes causa con atun, chifles, papas a la haucina, and the popular, low-priced Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food).

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In the back, the causa I ate. Every. Day.

Huaca Pucllana and Cerro San Cristobal

Close to Miraflores, in the center of the city, there is a curious-looking adobe ceremonial center built during the cultural height of Lima’s history, somewhere  around 500 A.D.

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Hauca Pucllana with Miraflores in the background

During the tour of  Huaca Pucllana, the guide explained the garden filled with plants typical of the area and animals native to Peru, as well as the occasional mummy, unearthed as renovation continues on the center.

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No visit to Peru is complete without a llama. Underbite optional.

One evening, I ventured to Cerro San Cristobal, overlooking Lima from a mountain near the Rímac District. Climbing 400 meters up a steep, narrow hillside, our small combi of 12 people passed the scenic Alameda de los Descalzos, a promenade with churches and marble statues built in the 1600s.

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The view from Cerro San Cristobal – gorgeous Lima

Accompanying the spectacular city view from the top of the mountain is a wooden cross, originally placed by Spaniards, destroyed by Quechua soldiers, and replaced with a replica that shines brilliantly above the city. Decorated with small lightbulbs, the cross is visible at night from most of downtown Lima.

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Church and Convent of Santo Domingo. Read more on LimaEasy.com

The Catacumbas of San Francisco

Even with its rich historic overtones, Lima is a well-orgnaized, modern city with convenient public-transit and the fast Metropolitano, which will take you from Miraflores to Centro in minutes.

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Iglesia de la Merced, home of the first mass in Lima, 1534

Once in el Centro, gorgeous ornate churches like the soft pink Iglesia de La Merced and buttery yellow Iglesia and Convent of San Francisco offer decorative facades with sturdy spires and complex carvings. Iglesia San Francisco is a true gem, with a soft glow outside and intricate Spanish tiles inside, as well as huge domed ceilings.

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Iglesia and Convent of San Francisco

Taking an afternoon to tour the catacombs of Iglesia San Francisco was nothing short of spectacular. A friendly, bilingual guide showed off the iglesia’s expansive library, the lush center courtyard and the elaborate baroque decor of the gorgeous congregation. He continued by describing the strict rituals followed by monks of the church as they dedicated their lives to service.

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Band performance from students at Colegio Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera

The tour ended with a final walk deep below the congregation, in the famous catacumbas.

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The massive library at Iglesia San Francisco

As our group of 20 tourists weaved through shallow, stone tombs lined with browned femurs, we passed a well ten meters deep with human skulls neatly arranged in circular piles: a horrifying yet fascinating sight to see. [The skulls are fairly morbid. Google “Iglesia San Francisco Catacumba skulls” or click here].

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Creepy catacombs with boxes of bones. Photo: insideperu.com

Barranco by Night

An evening invitation to Barranco seemed impassable with the opportunity to walk through the streets of his bohemian part of Lima, which in recent years has earned a reputation for its variety of restaurants and nightclubs. Traveling by taxi, arriving just after nightfall to a charming plaza, the breezes of Barranco swirled around the tiles at the entrance to the historic original Biblioteca.

Stunning Biblioteca of Barranco. Tower added in 1911.

Walking along steep stairs cut into cliffside led to a dreamy view of Lima at night, with a return pass by the intimate little church. Completing this night visit meant stopping for a proper Pisco Sour and enjoying the atmosphere of Ayahuasca, a gorgeous restobar housed in the former Mansión Berninzon, constructed between 1875 and 1895.

The glow of La Ermita church in Barranco, near the Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs)

Chullos, Chicha and Cancha

No trip to Perú would be complete without some serious souvenir and a little gift shopping. Although the Inka Market in Miraflores is a popular choice among travelers, there are several reasonably-priced shops with personable vendors in El Centro, near Iglesia San Fransciso.

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Theater and literature social space Casa de La Literatura Peruana

In one store, a woman neatly placed stacks of natural-hued chullos made from alpaca (and some colorful wool ones) next to intricate, embroidered pillows and woven leather bracelets while her husband nailed together wooden frames for his original, folk-art triptychs.

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Chullos! Some are reversible. Photo: Contiki Tours

The woman negotiated fair prices with curious customers as her husband hammered away, and shoppers appeared happy to give their money to this creative couple.

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Super souvenirs! Photo: cosmicadventure.com

[wherethesidewalkends.com has a great article on Bullying vs. Bartering and shopping tips for travelers]

While a majority of my gifts were purchased from the local supermercado, including chica morada drink mix, cancha snack corn and several packets of spicy aji amarillo powder, I left the souvenir store with a large bag of swag for family and friends, plus a bright yellow Inca Kola shirt for me: a colorful reminder of my resplendent 10 days here, where I definitely fell for the whole love of Lima.

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Inca Kola shirt + frothy Pisco Sour = Love


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Guayaquil Me Now

Two perks of being a teacher in South America are vacation time and easy travel options. For me, this meant 3 weeks to explore and several inexpensive airlines to choose from. Based on my slim volunteer budget, I elected to go to two countries: Ecuador, which has recently piqued my interest, and Perú, which I have dreamed of visiting for years.

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Fun Guayaquil font created by mmdesign.com

Stepping off the AeroGal plane in Guayaquil, I arrived to a climate similar to Barranquilla: hot, sticky days and breezy, balmy nights. A short taxi ride took me to the 3rd-floor-up Re Bed and Breakfast, where co-owner Fede greeted me warmly, mixing Spanish and English, describing the Centro district as “totally walkable,” pointing out places of interest on a map. I couldn’t wait to get started on my 5 day visit to this river-bordered town, officially named Santiago de Guayaquil, which resembles a hybrid of an Inca-influenced tapestry and a Méxican fishing pueblo.

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The view from Re Bed and Breakfast ~ Fede ordered fireworks! Just kidding.

 Re Bed + Breakfast  and El Centro

My first instinct when traveling is to find a local supermarket. Fede from Re suggested a small supermercado nearby, and while the downtown streets were dark at 7:00 pm, they were still busy with people and felt relatively safe. Once inside, I was fascinated with the store’s selection of traditional Ecuadorian foods and brands, all at very low prices in US dollars. Twenty-seven cents for a bag of chifles (plantain chips). Two dollars for a stack of large, fresh flour tortillas. A dollar for several Kolosso chocolates.  I returned with my goods and cooked a delicious meal for one in their spacious, clean kitchen.

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Some of the bounty after Frida and I went shopping

After a restful night in a cozy bed, I woke to a full breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh juice and coffee served with a warm smile by Hector. As with my time in Bogotá, I planned my days around the World Cup 2014 schedule, returning each afternoon to Re, where I enjoyed watching games on their large, flat-screen TV with Ana, Fede and a few other guests.

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A perfect little breakfast. ¡Gracias, Re Bed and Breakfast!

For one of the Ecuador games, several of Ana’s friends came over and we celebrated the team’s 2-1 victory over Honduras, I grew to appreciate my stay at Re, which is more being at a friend’s house.

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Watching the Colombia-Cote d’Iviore game with Colombians Sergio y Rosana

As the days melded together, I fell in love with Guayaquil. From my first day’s visit to the beautiful, nature-focused Parque Histórico to my final hours perusing the tiendas and souvenir shops of  the Artisanal Market, each moment in this pretty city delighted me more than the next. 

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Beautiful aquamarine Unidad Educativa San José La Salle, Guayaquil’s college

[Please note all days are scattered around FIFA World Cup 2014 schedules. It should also be noted that on my current volunteer budget, I did not go to Galapagos Island, but stayed all 5 days in Guayaquil, and it was perfect.]

Museo Nahim Isaias, Catedral Metropolitana, Parque Seminario (a.k.a. Parque Bolivar Park or Iguanas Park)

Museo Nahim Isaias

This small museum is made of several rooms linked together on the 3rd floor of an office building. The current exhibition, presented in dimly-lit rooms, revolves around the theme of the 4 elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth), which have interactive displays triggered by motion: as you enter each room, sounds and sensations of the elements begin. There is also a vast collection of gorgeous religious statues, as well as iconic paintings, all presented under spotlights.

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Spooky-cool sculpture at Museo Nahim Isaias

Catedral Metropolitana, Parque Seminario 

Parque Seminario, also known as Parque Bolivar Park or Iguanas Park, is a grassy plaza across front the Catedral Metropolitana where dozens of huge, tame iguanas lounge on park benches and hang from overhead tree branches.

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Look closely. I almost sat down here.

With a phobia of iguanas, I wasn’t sure this would be on my list of Things to Do in Guayaquil, but once in the park, I noticed if I stayed one or two steps ahead, the mighty green ones couldn’t get too close. After several squeamish minutes, I headed to the Catedral Metropolitana and thanked God for protecting me from the mini dinosaurs.

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Catedral Metropolitana. No más iguanas. Gracias, a Díos.

Malécon 2000

The Malécon 2000 of Guyaquil,  is mostly just a large, wooden walkway along the Guayas River, with a few vendors and restaurants available.

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Malécon 2000: Loving life in Guayaquil

Beginning at the Crystal Palace, and passing the beautiful Moorish clock tower, the Malécon provided a relaxing path to walk without traffic. At the end of the Malécon, near the Museo de Antropologia y Arte Contemporaneo (MAAC), with its collection of pottery, artifacts and a small modern art exhibit space, I stumbled upon a school-centered cultural event celebrating the native languages of Ecuador.

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Moorish Clock tower and Guayaquil flag, flying proud!

Kichwa and Fiesta del Inti Raymi 2014

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Dancers onstage at the Fiesta del Inti Raymi

A centuries-old celebration of the Sun, Guayaquil’s Fiesta del Inti Raymi (Fiesta del Sol, en Quichua) was colorful and inspiring, resplendent with traditional dance and costumes.

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Loving the traditional colorful costumes of cultura Kichwa

Clearly the only blonde tourist inside the event, a man asked, “Are you an English teacher in Ecuador?” to which I responded, “I am a volunteer teacher in Colombia.” He quickly grabbed a chair for me and said, “Sit, and please, enjoy our presentation!”

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Beautiful Ecuadorian girls and their booth for Dolores Cacuango

After watching several dances, I checked out a few booths promoting Kichwa, culture, and food, including one honoring Dolores Cacuango, a pioneer of the indigenous rights movement in Ecuador. It was refreshing and inspiring to feel the pride and joy of the friendly students and teachers of this great event.

Las Peñas, El Faro and the Chapel of Santa Ana

After my fill of Kichwa, I headed to Las Peñas, a colorful stair-ladened barrio with little houses and cobblestone streets. Winding my way through the multi-leveled neighborhood, I finally reached the infamous “444 Steps,” which felt more like 544, as the stairs taunted me “just one more!…”

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Colorful houses along the climb: 400+ steps of Las Peñas

At the top of Las Peñas is a beautiful small Faro overlooking Guayaquil, as well as the picturesque tiny chapel of Santa Ana, with a spectacular view of the city.

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Santa Ana Chapel and the colorful houses of Cerro Santa Ana

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Visa from the top of Las Peñas: gorgeous Guayaquil!

Leaving Las Peñas, I made my way down to the impressive Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Guayaquil’s first church, built in 1548.

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The sky agrees with Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzmán

Parque Historico – structures, screamers y más

A lifetime fan of park-museum combinations, I dedicated a full morning in Guayaquil to visiting Parque Historico, a large park across the Durán bridge, on the east side of Río Daule.