Friday, April 22, 2011

South American Superlatives: Colombia

Back in the US!

My three months of writing hiatus have been the opposite of what you would expect three months with an empty blog to be. My friend Whitney and I had been traveling South America, running from one city to the next to see the main sites, meet new people and delve into new delicacies and cuisines our new location had to offer.

Starting north in Colombia we headed south by bus, winding down the mountainous highways toward Ecuador. After rediscovering the country I had lived in for three months just a year and a half ago, I said goodbye again to my friends and flew east to Brazil to visit family and celebrate Carnaval in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. We ended our trip in Argentina before separating ways after three months of spending almost every hour together.

With too much to say in one post about three months of travel, we'll go with the "best of," starting with Colombia.

The Nicest People I Have Ever Met: Colombia

We wondered if it was because we were girls, but male travelers who we would later meet said they were treated the same. It felt like we could have been the only foreigners in the country by the way the Colombians embraced us. They could not have seemed more excited to know where we were from, what we did, how we got here, what we were doing in Colombia... etc. In two different cities, two men, who coincidentally both want to be future mayors, gave us impromptu tours. They saw we had no idea where we were going (in one case, we were actually heading toward the dangerous part of town), and they swooped us up to show us a market or restaurant we would have missed without them. I had thought Guatemalans were friendly. Every time you step on to any form of public transportation in Guatemala, you greet every single person that’s already inside. Imagine that happening in the subways of New York! Well, Colombians take friendliness to the next level.

In Santa Marta, in northern Colombia, a group of fishermen began to talk to us, and one of their friends, Herney, decided to help us find a cheap place to eat. Cristian, a hyperactive 10-year old joined us after splashing through the waters. He was so curious abut the United States, and asked with his eyes bugged out, does the US really have cannibals and vampires like he had seen in the movies? I told him there were as many in the US as there were in Colombia. 

Street vendors gave us samples of their own personal meal before recommending a great place for music in Cartagena.

Most Beautiful Colonial City: Cartagena

Sorry, Antigua, Guatemala. I know I lived in you for six months, but Cartagena beats your majority one-story buildings with its building diversity and beautifully flowered balconies.

 Cartagena, a UNESCO world heritage site, was founded in 1533.

 Cartagena street vendors relax in the dripping heat of the city.

Best Day Trip: Guatapé

Saying this was the best day trip in Colombia--maybe in our whole trip--says a lot since I was recovering from a stomach virus that snuck up on me on a 16-hour bus ride. Just a day after feeling awful (details not necessary), I still was weak, but made it to Guatape, about two hours from Medellin. Each house in Guatapé has its own original decoration. The top half of the houses are painted a different color, and the bottom half has a strip of painted adornments, some simply shapes, while others depict people or animals. Right outside of the center, a rock sits with 649 steps leading to the top. I slowly made it to the top, weak stomach, no energy and all, to a landscape of natural water channels that make their way through hilly patches. It was as if mother nature created a jigsaw puzzle of water and land.

Most Unique Coffee Tour: Manizales

Since it was a hot day and just Whitney and I would be on the tour, our guide decided to take the back route around the farm. Rather than just taking a look at all the plants and hearing about the process of growing coffee, we started our tour walking through a river alongside the farm. We thought originally we would be walking beside the river, but we were in knee deep, struggling to keep balance above the rocks. We got the coffee talk too, but this made the tour much more memorable.
 Walking through rivers, jumping across bridges... this was not your average coffee farm tour.

Most Scenic Bus Ride

Before going to Colombia, many people had told me to not take a bus from Colombia to Ecuador. They warned me of robberies and kidnappings. However, while traveling by bus through Colombia, I could not have felt safer. Police came on to buses at least one time during each of our trips to look at people's passports or videotape our faces. We had no problem crossing the border by bus, and had a great view along the way. We crept up from the bottom of the mountains to the top, getting a full view of the jagged peaks. The border town, Ipiales, even has a beautiful church that juts out between the mountains. Hassle free, less money and a good view. Definitely worth it.
Church in Ipiales, Colombia a few minutes before the border crossing to Ecuador.


Taganga, northern Colombia

Street art in La Candelaria, Bogota

 Plaza Bolivar, Bogota

 Story Teller in Bogota

 View from road to coffee farm, Manizales

Street art outlining city view of Cali, a city known for its nightlife and salsa

View from top of the cable car in Medellin with our host David

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Steep Slopes of Agua

Right before I left Guatemala, I had a week vacation between Christmas and New Years.  The plan was to go to El Salvador and relax on the beach before heading to Lake Atitlan to celebrate the new year. However, in Guatemala City, I realized I left my passport at my friend's house that was locked up because he was gone for the holidays. I hadn't thought to pack it because they don't stamp your passport at the border.

We thought we could try to talk to the people at the border since I had all other forms of identification and get through without a problem. However, they wouldn't accept any amount of convincing. They wanted my passport in person, not the copy. My friend Andrew wanted me to either hide behind the bags or cross a river, but I was not going to take the risk for just a few days in El Salvador. Plus, I knew my mom wouldn't be happy to read a blog post about me illegally crossing borders.

So we headed back inland to Monterrico, and thankfully had only traveled a few hours away to get to the border. We spent the night at the beach, and the next day headed to Guatemala City to make our way to el Volcan de Agua--our next big adventure that didn't require a passport.

Although the Volcan de Agua is not the highest point in Guatemala, it's a kick-in-the-butt to climb. It is more well known for the robbers that climbers find on the hike back down. Andrew and I were preparing ourselves the morning of our hike to make sure if we were robbed, it wouldn't be too much. I didn't pack my camera, and I left most of my belongings in the hostel. We were discussing how much money we should carry to offer to our potential robbers. I wanted to bring only 40 quetzales, but Andrew said he was planning on being a little nicer. He said sometimes people turn to violence when they don't receive the amount they want. "But I heard they were nice robbers!" I responded. I had heard stories of the robbers giving people back their memory cards and Q5 for the busride back to Antigua. A boy sleeping next to us woke up to tell us it was the oddest conversation he had woken up to in his life.

With our money in our money belts, we headed off to climb the monstrous Volcan de Agua and were well prepared to hand off a bit of cash for anyone that threatened our way.

The hike was a steady up-hill climb, so we took three breaks throughout our trip. Each time I could not imagine how the view could get better, but with each stop, we could see more of the surrounding towns, then cities even further, all the way up to mountain ranges hours away. Five hours later, we reached the top, sweating, exhausted and with no desire to move an inch. All we could do was refuel on the oranges and cookies we had. We were too tired and pressed for time to walk around the top to get a full view. Despite our laziness, we felt like we were at the higest point of the world. It was a perfectly clear day so we saw all around.  Two volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego stood next to each other in what looked like just an arms length away from one another. With a long leap, I felt like I could almost make it to one of their peaks, if only I had enough energy. In the far background, a mountain range looked dwarfed from the distance with all the towns and villages sprawled in front, hidden in nooks of the mountains.

We wisked down the path at a brisk pace to get back in time for the last bus. Although it was much easier, I fell flat on my face three times and tripped 11 more--yes I did count. Despite the bruises and sore muscles, the climb was most definitely worth it, especially since we left with all the belongings we came with.

Andrew's Pictures of our climb:
Almost there! Walking stick in hand, we inch our way up the last half hour.
 Taking a break, we were building our immune system while snacking with dirt-filled fingers.

 From below, Volcan de Agua looks pretty innocuous.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's not Christmas, It's Navidad

As a Jew, my Christmas memories have included eating at the only restaurants open for that night, skiing on an empty ski mountain and one long flight to Turkey last year. It is not an important holiday for me, but when two people invited me to their house to celebrate, I had a huge debate who I should say no to.  I debated between celebrating with Charlie, a good friend I have met from the beginning of my time in Guatemala, or Sarbelio, a construction worker that is part of the organization I work for.

In the end, I decided I would split the night. The last bus to Chimaltenango, where Sarbelio lives, leaves at 7 at night, so I figured I could spend the beginning with Charlie and his family and then spend the rest of the night with Sarbelio. Plans did not work out as I had hoped. Charlie was running around preparing for the night that I only had a chance to see him right before I got on the bus for Chimaltenango. I gave him a big Merry Christmas Hug and then was on my way.

Christmas dinner at Sarbelio's was the calm family-sharing time I had always pictured Christmas to be. Besides the tomales and punch that are typical here in Guatemala, the Christmas dinner was pretty standard. We sat around the table, talked and laughed.

Later, his son, daughter and I went to the center of town. In the US, the streets are empty on Christmas, but in Guatemala, the center is bustling. Surrounding a ferris wheel, vendors sell fireworks, apples and grapes, and people play at game stands, just as if it were a town fair. We went on the ferris wheel that went quicker than any ferris wheel I had been on before. Your stomach dropped as you turned over the top curve, and you just had to avoid thinking that Guatemala does not have any safety guidelines in such cases.

We went back to the house for midnight, and people were sitting on stools in front of their front doors, with a fire lit by pine cones keeping them warm. I joined Sarbelio and the rest of his family outside, and we nibbled on grapes and apples and drank glasses of champagne.

For months of working with Sarbelio, I knew very little of him and his family. The house he lives in is very big compared to what many Guatemalans have. Yet, he told me it took him 20 years to build it up to what it is today. He lived in a sugar cane house before that he rented for 18 Quetzales a month. He comes from an indigenous town, but they fled during the war, and his mother was killed by the army. I later found out they have recently found her body after many years of not knowing where it was.

Right before midnight, a storm of home-owned fireworks exploded throughout the small alleyways where only small cars could pass. Each family had a bundle of their own fireworks, and the streets lit up throughout the city. Some were simple sticks that lit up and others were elaborate lights that shot up in the sky. It was incredible, and I felt more like I was celebrating Fourth of July and not Christmas. When it turned 12:00 on the 25th we all hugged and wished each other a Merry Christmas. But midnight did not mark the end of the night by any means. They continued drinking, the fireworks still boomed and sizzled and they stayed talking until four in the morning. I, on the other hand, went to bed at 1:30.

 Although most had run through their fireworks by 1am, some kids still lit the alleyways in celebration.

It may be my only Christmas I have ever celebrated, but if I am to celebrate again, I would hope it's al estilo chapin, in the Guatemalan style.

The Discovered Paradise

Walking up a steep hill labeled "difficult," I wondered what exactly I was doing again dizzy, losing my breath, as I had been weeks before climbing up the Indian's Nose.  Yet when I reached the top view overlooking Semuc Champey, the turquoise water pools amongst a dense forest valley, I remembered all difficult climbs in Guatemala are worth the head-rush.

The five pools are really just a small dot in the forest that rolls over the mountains continues beyond sight, but they stand out with their bight color as they break up the continuous green.

Our impatient tour guide yawned as he waited for us on the way up. His accustomed legs that climbed to the top three times a day did not want to wait for those slow-pokes like me. But the hike down to the pools from the mirador went quickly compared to the quick paced hike up. We reached the bottom and our guide led the way through each of the pools, sliding down rocks or jumping if the water was deep enough.

Within the pools itself, people splashed around, creating chaos in the calm of the forest. But by swimming backstroke, with my ears under the water and head facing up, I could get a glimpse of the tranquility that once was.

After pool hopping, our guide divided us into two groups to go tubing down the river. We waited as the first group went, watching them pass from our high viewpoint in the hostel. They unloaded the tubes quicker than expected, and before we can say it was a waste to go, we saw them climbing up to the top of a bridge about 20 or 30-feet high, and one by one they jumped in the water.

I was ready and excited for our turn to tube.  However, by the time I stood at the bridge's end, one look down convinced me not to go. I turned around and watched a few more people go. I was determined and stood at the edge to once again turn around. Finally, by the third try after everyone jumped, I tried again. My friend Ron instructed me to close my eyes, hold my nose, shut my legs and jump straight. I listened to all the advice, except the most important: jump straight. I landed in a sitting position, only realizing it when the splash shocked my butt cheeks with an terribly harsh tingle that gave me rosy cheeks as I exited the water. At least I did it, I thought, as I rubbed my bright red bum.

We walked through caves in the last part of our Semuc Champey trip, guided by small candles that barely showed five feet in front of you. Our guide stayed in back, and my friend Annie and I stood at the front to lead the group in a direction where we had no idea where we were going. We started walking through  caves with downward facing points that looked like Gothic style architecture. The further we walked, the deeper the water became, and we had to swim in sections. Yet even the best swimmer could not swim with style because we had to hold the candle above water, leaving us no choice but to doggie-paddle.

Why I Need Dual Citizenship

Just one stamp could cost you $82. That was the unfortunate lesson I learned when I went to get my Brazilian visa for my four-country, three-month trip with my best friend Whitney. Our plan is to start in Colombia, move down to Ecuador, head to Brazil in plane, and finish the trip in Argentina. Out of all the countries, Brazil is the only one that requires a visa from US citizens, a requirement started out of spite of harsh US visa policies for incoming Brazilians.

The visa process was fairly easy since I am in Guatemala, and few Americans apply for Brazilian visas here. I did not make an appointment. I got to the consulate, and after a half hour I was out the door, thinking, that was way easier than I imagined. I thought too soon. While walking down the steps, the security guard called my name, "there is a problem with your passport!" Uh Oh.

My passport was full.  I had a page available for them to stamp, but the Brazilian visa takes up two pages. Two adjacent pages would have been the perfect spot, if one single United States stamp didn't ruin it all.  So rather than a quick 30-minute meeting, I next found myself running to the American Embassy to add pages to my passport. When I learned that adding pages cost $82, I was not a happy camper. I already was paying $140 in reciprocity fees to enter the country, the extra cost did not come as a happy surprise.

As a traveler who wants to go to countries that may not be huge US fans, American government, I beg you, please be kinder to incoming tourists. It would make my life that much easier, and my travels just a little cheaper!


Today is my last day in Guatemala, and I want to finish all of my posts about my last month here before I leave and head out on my three-month long trip through South America... so thank you for your patience if you actually decide to read through everything.

The week before Thanksgiving, I was super antsy to get back home. I could not wait to see my family and friends, indulge in gluttony over the thanksgiving table and see my niece Jilly that turned one this past Christmas. My excitement led me to completely forget that coming home is not always the smoothest transition, even if I was just gone a few months. I always think it is more difficult to go home than it is to go away because you have experienced so much in your travels, and so much is the same at home. Plus, you always expect changes when you go to a different country, but you think you are going back to "normal" when you go home, and you realize it does not feel as normal as it had before.

I was so happy to see all of my friends and family. The week definitely passed too quickly and I was running between seeing one friend and another. However, it was somewhat overwhelming going back, even after only four months.  I realized how different my post-college life has been compared to my friends. I received a shocked response when someone saw I still have an old-school, outdated flip phone, which is fancy compared to my Guatemalan phone whose buttons don't work, forcing me to push them with a pen for five minutes to just get to my contacts list.

The biggest reverse-culture shock was on my last day when my friend Yamilesi invited me to brunch.  She told me to dress up because it was a fancier brunch, but I had no idea I would be dining in one of New York City's most exclusive brunches at the Plaza Hotel, filled with the city's elite youth. We were able to get a reservation because Yami knew the manager, and she brought me and her friend Celia along.

The wealth was flowing out of the room.  Everyone was dressed in the hottest styles--I learned furs are in this season. Even the waitresses rocked a fashionable short black dress with an empty back.

Coming from trying to stay in my Guatemalan budget and eating only rice and beans for a week to this was a striking contrast. We had mimosas, a bottle of champagne, an appetizer and a main course for ourselves. When it came to desert, the three of us couldn't agree on what we wanted. So to avoid any confrontation, we decided to order them all. That is no joke. We had one of each dessert on the menu. Yami was so sure her friend would be covering the breakfast, and she reassured Celia and me not to worry. She was right. I ended up only paying part of the tip for an amazing meal. Talk about a change of lifestyle from my crap apartment, cheap food and low costs in Guatemala.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I hope this isn't a stranger's house

My month long hiatus has been, for the most part, in good reason. Work has been crazy hectic as I  prepare for my departure. All the work I have to do before is just a bit on the list I had before Christmas vacation. We had to prepare a lot of work before we left on vacation, I was catching up from a week gone in New York for thanksgiving and we have a huge raffle that has been taking up a lot of time. Most excitingly I have had a slew of volunteers coming, and we are completely booked for next week! Running between the communities, around Antigua and in the office has been hectic, but I am happy a very busy time has come--better late than never.

So I will start where I never got to, going way back to last year at the beginning of December...

With a few drinks in us to warm our stomachs, a few friends and I headed back to my friend Ana Karen's place. The night had been a success, but in no way one you would point out in the future of remember when's.  That was the case until we found ourselves locked outside her house. Keys, check. The problem: the door. The key was correct, but the lock would not budge. Her mother had warned her before the door was broken, but she hadn't expected a full lock-out.

What to do? Most of the crew lives in Guatemala City, so they needed a place to stay. The reasonable answer would be for all of us to split up between my house and the house of another friend Jackie that lives in Antigua. But when in Guatemala, adventure grabs your spirit, and reasonable is just, well... boring.

So after an hour of struggling with the door, we were determined to get in. Juan Pablo, known as mono, or monkey, by his friends, lived up to his nickname. He climbed the window grate to the top of the roof. At the top, he found the window Ana Karen indicated, and followed her instructions: break in that window!

The rest of us--Jackie, Ana Karen, Trey, Jessica and I--stood with our heads facing upward, waiting to hear what we knew would happen next. Juan Pablo hesitated. "Are you sure you want to do this?" He asked only to hear Ana Karen's confident response, "dele mono!"


Juan Pablo started his work with a stick he found on the rooftop, and he was continually smashing into the window. Then a light entered the house, and we knew he was in.

Juan Pablo came downstairs to open the door for us, but it still refused to open. With an already broken window, it seemed we had no other choice. We all climbed the window grates to the top. Talk about an alternative entrance.

The next morning, Ana Karen played perfect hostess. Although she wanted to go buy food, she realized she would have to climb in and out for it, she figured to stick with what we already had. After a hearty typical Guatemalan breakfast, we left the same way we entered, except this time we were in broad daylight for all her neighbors to see. A man across the way stood in his doorway, watching for a few minutes, but didn't ask us any questions or call the police. For all he knew, we could have been robbers. We at least entered in their style.

Monday, January 3, 2011

To keep you busy...

To make up for my extreme absence I have just added more pictures on facebook:
Stories coming soon, promise!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The End of the Unlucky Streak

My friend Connor said that whenever Bryan and I travel together, we always get into some ridiculously difficult situation, yet we always seem to get out of it perfectly fine.  Our last trip together faired no different.  I don’t know what it is, but our travel styles mashed together seem to spark disasters that in a flash resolve on their own.

We rode to a rock structure on our bikes.  A friend had told me about this “interesting rock formation near Escuintla.”  Bryan knew where it was, and it is close enough to Antigua to go by bikes for a day trip.  We left after midday, coasting on the mostly downhill highways.  Although buses and cars sped by, I felt safe in the wide the lane to the side of the road.

At around four we arrived to our destination, a formation that looked like a jumble rocks with a point at the top in the shape of a thumbs up.  The man that worked there said he would leave at five, so by the time we came back down, he would be gone.  The hike should take 45 minutes, he said.

To start on the trail, you needed to cross over a large fallen tree that stood in for a bridge over the river.  What did they do before the tree fell and what will they do when the tree decays, I wondered as a crawled across.

The hike could have easily taken 45 minutes as the man had mentioned if the path to the top had been clear.  We had no idea where to start and figured we could follow the path of garbage strewn on the ground.  I normally get so frustrated to see the litter all over the roads and sidewalks, but I was surprised how little they look after a park in which you need to pay an entrance fee.  Bottles and food wrappers led us in the wrong direction, and by our third reroute--and 30 minutes in--we had made it on the right track.

At a fork on the path, we thought we should continue straight rather than turn because the other path seemed too steep.  Once we entered a field that led away from our final destination, we  turned back around.  The correct way up became so steep at certain points, I had to rely on the trees’ roots to hoist myself up.  Create a mix between rock climbing on a very easy angle and hiking and you have our trip to the summit.

We walked close to the top to see an unspectacular view of corn fields cut through by highway.  I convinced Bryan to head back down since it was dusk and soon it would be pitch black.  Especially with the unclear path and steep slope, I did not want to risk any problems.

We made it down perfectly on time right before it was too dark to see your hand in front of your face.  Success story!  I was so happy that for once Bryan and I had a problem-free trip.  Right as I wanted to pat ourselves on the back, Bryan said, “Oh no, mate.  We have a problem.”  The key to our bike lock broke in half inside the lock.  We were stuck two hours by bike from Antigua.  Although buses passed by, we couldn’t leave the bikes because Bryan had borrowed his from our roommate. 

Bryan’s innovative mind put a rock in his hand, and he began to smash it against a tree with the lock resting against it.  No luck.  We broke the plastic, but could not get through the metal.  With no other option in mind, we stood on the side of the street, waving our hands to the cars that passed.  We had no idea we were on a dangerous part of the highway and no cars would stop for strangers.  The ones that would stop are probably those that you don’t want to help you.  Again, we were stuck, unsure what to do.

 Our calls for help on the side of the street came with no answer.

Finally, Bryan realized the masons from my work lived in a town nearby.  I called him and frantically rambled about our situation.  The moment Carlos heard we needed a ride and a saw, he said, “I’ll be right there.”   He came with Mario another Constru Casa mason, and together they broke our bikes free.  

It would not have been a good ending to our travels if we had passed the trip carefree with no problem.  Nope.  Bryan and I had to live our tradition through until the very end.