The True Columbia

Colombia journal day one:  Things I learned in a day


Just finished my first full day in Colombia and will record my thoughts while they are fresh in my mind.  It is amazing the things one can learn quickly when willing to pay attention in a foreign land.  The first thing I learned was that knowing even a little Spanish would have been very helpful.  Thankfully we had an incredible guide and interpreter with us.  Kathryn never ceases to amaze me with her ability to pick up the language as well as the local dialect.  It is hard to get a feel for things or be able to accomplish even simple tasks when the only Spanish I know is to tell them that I don’t know any Spanish.  The next thing I learned was that you need to get a handle on the currency.  Imagine my shock when I went to draw money from an ATM and the receipt comes back telling me that I have taken out $400,000 and my balance is $6,348,000.  Takes some getting used to when the sign says the soda is $800.  Good news, we’re getting that one under control with some improving math skills.  Lesson number three was that I may need the hair coloring after all.  When entering their state park, I was reminded that it was senior day and that since I clearly looked older than 60, I could get a discount.  The good news is that I entered the park almost for free, $7,000 vs $25,000 for the full price crowd.  What a deal.  Oh yeah, that’s just $4 after you do the math.  Then there was the papaya trick.  Turns out that papaya apparently smells like vomit to those without the right gene.  Of course if you can’t smell in the first place.  Needless to say I got to eat all the papaya, Kathryn and Bailey may have the smell gene but not the “I can eat papaya” gene.


What I really learned that was important is that Colombia is not the country so many Americans imagine it to be.  Where I pictured small little rural towns tucked far apart, I discovered Medellin with 3,000,000 people and nothing like I pictured it.  They have their own music and art, a beautiful city with an incredible transit system and a culture rich in its history.  The street vendors sell incredible juice drinks and the food is delicious.  Where we see drug cartels, they have done everything they can to rid their city and country of the problem.  Now if we would stop being such a demanding market for those drugs maybe things would improve even faster.  I am proud of Kathryn’s ability and willingness to step out of her comfortable life style and immerse her self in another culture and truly become a citizen of the country.  It is through her eyes that I can now learn all these lessons, especially the important ones.


Colombia journal day two:  And more lessons learned


Today proved to be an amazing day.  We spent the better part of it at a University held Aeisec event.  I got to watch and see what the group does and how Kathryn recruits.  The students who gathered to talk to the various delegates about their countries spent most of their time with us practicing their English and staring at the three Americans.  The number one question was always what do you think of Colombia?  With each new response I found myself naming something else.  I think I am most moved by their desire to know more about us.  It was a unique experience and a great way to better understand the Colombian culture.  Each group had a new place they wanted us to see.  They have so much pride in their country and they are a beautiful people.


In the morning, before the Aeisec event, we toured the downtown shopping district.  It is called Hueco (sounds like Wacko) and indeed lives up to its name.  It is a cacophony of color and noise as you weave through the streets full of kiosks and vendors.  I was overwhelmed but delighted.  From the number of stores carrying nothing but them, it is apparent that shoes seem to be the biggest commodity.  They were everywhere you looked with tennis shoes being the major variety.


We ended our day at the home of Kathryn’s boyfriend.  The hospitality was inspiring and the meal delicious.  We had practiced how to thank them and compliment the meal in anticipation and it was not premature.  The meal was authentic and served restaurant style which is how it is done in Colombia.  With some tasty Colombian beer and then fine Colombian coffee, the kind that would bring my wife to her knees, the meal was a feast.


One final lesson and one important to share.  When traveling by taxi, bus or auto, it is important to keep one’s eyes closed and all body parts inside the vehicle.  I would call it traffic but the word does not come close to conjuring up the proper image.  In Italy all roads lead to Rome.  In Colombia, all roads lead into your lane.  Leave eighteen inches and a motorcycle, one of a million on the streets, will occupy it.  Leave four feet and a bus will occupy it.  The motion is continuous and the speed menacing, but somehow it just keeps flowing.


And day two comes to a close.



Colombia journal day three:  Passing on the curve


We got to Kathryn’s school around 8 today.  We had taken a taxi and were not even out of the car when the chants of Kati, Kati, Kati started filling the air.  As we passed through the gates, she was literally mobbed by a host of small children.  What a way to start your teaching day.  Maybe kindergarten teachers get this treatment in America but not so much beyond that.  Here the value on education is so high and the opportunity to have someone teach them English is just so appreciated.


We spent the day with several classes ranging from year sixes up to the soon to graduate class of elevens with their proudly worn class of 2012 jackets.  We would do our presentations to the class and then they would break into groups and we would help them with their pronunciations as they read fairy tails in parts.  They were so shy but would then warm up and beg our help with the words.  They struggled in particular with past tense words as the “ed” is so difficult as well as the “th” sounds.  I am afraid that we lent a Midwest slang and accent to the whole process but they were so gracious.  They in turn tried to help us learn some Spanish and some hard pronunciations for us like the rolling double r sound.  They would all ask us to say the word and then roar in a great cascade of laughter.  Bailey even was asked by one of the year nines to present a quick math lesson.  She did not disappoint.  The day was an incredible experience and we talked about it for hours.


In the late afternoon we were driven along with Sister Irma and another teacher, Claudia, to a small town in the mountains.  The town was Santa Fe and was reached by driving over the mountain above Medellin.  The road was like any other mountain road, curvy and hanging on the edge at many points, but what an experience to take this trip Colombia style.  I spoke in an earlier journal entry of how insane the taxi and bus drivers are in the city, but this took it right to the edge.  Who would think of passing a vehicle uphill and on the curve?  The answer is apparently everyone!  I had the honor of the front seat on the way to Santa Fe and I just had to give up even watching and believe that they were so calm about it, that they make it seem completely normal.  To add further chaos to the mix, there were hundreds of motorcycles trying to share in this craziness and people casually walking the road as well.  All this while the busses and cars whizzed around at 50 miles an hour.  On the return trip, now in a bus, we got to witness some local color as one of the riders asked the bus to stop.  We were thinking he was merely exiting but he instead relieved himself on the side of the road and then climbed back aboard and we were back on our brake squealing ride.  All in all it was a beautiful trip and truly scenic and another of those days you must have in a foreign country to truly even begin to understand their way of life.  I’ll just never face a curve the same way again.


Colombia journal day four:  Butch and Sundance would have been proud


We headed for El Retiro early and traveled the hour into the mountains via bus.   We met up with the owner of a guide service and spent the morning with him learning about the region and actually ended up helping them with the town’s marketing campaign.  We were interviewed on film and then Kathryn interpreted for the viewers.  The region is known for its coffee, yes the fine Colombian kind.  You know, Juan Valdez.  We could not leave their offices without ample samples of some.  It is truly fine and that coming from me, a slouch at coffee drinking.  After a brief tour we were loaded onto our horses right in the town square and we were off.


Our guide, no habla inglas, was more than helpful.  Kathryn again stepped into the interpreter role and between the two of them we were well taken care of.  After a short ride down a back road, we entered the mountain meadows.  Sounds easy, but we were at the top of the mountain and spent the next hour working down steep grades to get to the valley below.  This is where my reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes in.  After all they ended their bank robbing careers in Colombia, so it was an easy step to feeling like we were in the movie.  The scenery was spectacular and after crossing a mountain stream repeatedly as we rode across the valley floor, we stopped for lunch in a meadow half way up the next ridge.


After resuming our ride we eventually worked our way through a long canyon and then back out of the mountains.  Now we could have just ridden back into town, but our guide decided we had done a great job for americanos and brought us to a cantina, where we tied up the horses and had our selves some Colombian drinks.  I would not do the name justice but it was a lot like tequila but much smoother.  After lingering about for almost an hour, expecting cowboys to saunter in at any minute, (and two actually did) we mounted back up and rode the rest of the way back to the town square.


Now this would have been enough to make the day a success, but more was in store.  The two gentlemen who had worked with us earlier, met us with Colombian coffee and a huge bouquet of flowers for Bailey and Kathryn.  After a tour of the markets in the square and a round of smooth Colombian cervezas, we had to bid them good bye.  They had practiced how to say good bye, and in halting English, told us it was a pleasure to meet us and of course asked us to come back.


This was the Colombia I was looking for.  We hold such a biased view of Colombia here in the states, but today and in fact all of the days so far, have shown us a beautiful country with proud and gracious people.  Where people told us to fear for our lives we in fact are having the time of our lives.  I will, with everyone I talk to, tell them what Colombia and its people are really like.  Today was like an exclamation mark.


Just a side note, I was originally going to title this planes, trains and automobiles.  We have now traveled by plane, train, taxi, bus and horse on this trip and we add paragliding tomorrow.  We only need a boat and a motorcycle to hit them all.


Colombia journal day five:  Fly like an eagle


To try to use words to describe what it is like to run off the edge of a mountain and then magically, serenely float into the sky is a pointless endeavor, but I will at least make the effort.


The day started early, as every day does here but today we are having some real anxiety issues that will need to become adrenaline if we are to go through with this day’s activity.  We are scheduled to paraglide from the top of one of the mountains above Medellin.  Our only solace is that Kathryn has already done it.  She is convincing us that it is a must to culminate our Colombia adventure.  With her guiding us, we set off for San Felix.  We will be over three thousand feet above the city of Medellin nestled in the valley below us.  The views we know will be spectacular but how do you overcome that pit in your stomach, aching to have you turn back.


We arrived in San Felix around ten and then waited for our pilots to arrive.  We watched as pair after pair dropped into the air from the peak above us.  It seemed so graceful that it gave us hope.  The pilots arrived about 30 minutes later and escorted us to the peak.  There we sensed the reality of it and the anxiety returned.  After another almost painful 20 minutes, we were told they were ready for us.  Fortunately they are so quick about the maneuver, “winds right we go”, that before we can even think about backing out we are strapped into our “chair”, a few quick instructions, “run then sit and I’ll do the rest”, and we are screaming toward the edge of the runway.  I use that word as it sounds so much more reassuring than edge of the mountain, a whole twenty yards away!


And then there is silence.  We are aloft and the sensation is to finally know what the birds feel.  I can feel the wind rushing through my canopy, my wings, and I see before me the entire world drifting far below me.  My thought was that we would start to sink earthward, there is gravity you know, but instead we start climbing higher.  The pilot effortlessly glides us over the landscape and picks and chooses where he wants us to go. We cross a canyon, sail over a waterfall, and silently slide past a village nestled high in a mountain valley just below the peak.  We pirouette and soar several times over the landing area before eventually gliding in to a soft landing just a few feet from where 30 minutes ago we had lifted off.  Jubilant I reach my hands to the sky and cheer for the sheer pleasure I have just experienced.  This 30 minutes will live a lifetime in my memories and will rank high as another great adventure shared.


Colombia journal day six:  What will I leave behind


Where do I begin with so many memories of this Country.  One that comes to mind immediately is the views of the city of Medellin nestled in the valley.  The houses rise up the mountain side to dizzying heights.  So high that the buses do not reach them.  The people must take gondola cars to reach the upper neighborhoods.  At night the lights from the city begin to glow in the downtown areas and then creep up the mountain side like a bowl being filled with milk.  The sight is so beautiful that you find yourself transfixed as it unfolds.


I will also leave behind the small villages, crowded around their town square as well as the rush of activity always present in that square.  The vendors with their colorful carts, the beautiful churches and the cantinas, all crowded around the square.  I will remember with fondness the two gentleman, Carlos and Franklin, whom we met in el Retiro.  They were so proud of their city and so gracious in taking us in.  When the evening finally had to end, we were saying goodbye to two new friends who insisted we had to come back.


I will miss waking up to the clouds rolling over the mountain tops and the noise of the city as it awakens.


I will leave behind the school children and their enthusiasm to learn English.  Their innocence and shyness just drew us in.  We left there with memories and images that will stay with us forever.


I will miss the street cafes and the delicious foods they serve.


I will even miss the metro and the hueco shopping district.  The sight of the metro teeming with people as it runs alongside the city streets in the night is somehow magical.  The fact that it can so quickly deliver you to the city’s sites, is so efficient.


But most of all I will leave behind the friends we made and the sights they were so proud to show us.  Colombia surprises you at every turn.  It is not what we are led to believe from the news.  I can forgive the media, for they only present the bad news from other countries, but one has to travel there and let the people and their culture surround you.  Stop being the tourist and try to become the citizen.  The surface peels away and the true nature of the country emerges.  I always feel just a little more worldly when I leave. I only hope that we left behind a better image of ourselves as well.



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