Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

Happy post-vacation Tuesday, y’all! Yeah, I know most of you had to work last week, but that’s just another of the perks of living in these southern regions.

On the other hand, I spent basically all day yesterday sitting in the teachers’ room at school, doing nothing — not because I’m a huge slacker, but because upon my return to Bogotá this weekend, my body immediately decided to express its displeasure with the departure from warmer, sunnier climes by becoming quite indignantly sick (at least it seems indignant to me. And it’s my body, so who is anyone to tell me otherwise?). It’s not anything severely terrible, just a rather emphatic cold, but between the constant sniffles and the fact that my voice is operating at about zero decibels with the occasional squeak to provide contrast, I’m afraid I won’t be much use at all as a teacher this week.

walls and lamps

Cartagena: Exhibit A in "how to create successful mood lighting."

The immune system devastation was absolutely worth it, though, for last week’s festivities. Here in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, the week before Easter is Holy Week, or Semana Santa. For most working people, only the Thursday and Friday of that week are holidays, but lucky us in the school system — we get a whole week off! It is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, though, kind of like our Thanksgiving week, so you have to plan ahead if you don’t want to be paying your entire year’s volunteer stipend just to leave the city. Luckily, I’m friends with some savvy people, and we figured way back in January that by April we’d probably need a break from the Bogotá rain, so we got ourselves some flights to Cartagena ASAP before the prices went through the roof. And holy arepas con huevos, am I glad we did.

Our weeklong journey took us to the beaches of Cartagena, around the walled city and up the ramparts of an old castle, through a highway that winds along the Caribbean coast past the port city of Barranquilla, up to the smaller town of Santa Marta and the gorgeous beaches near Tayrona National Park, then back to Cartagena for one more day of socializing and eating ice cream before we crashed back into the rainy reality of Bogotá. But let’s go back to the warm, happy place for a few minutes, shall we?

oh hey, pretty sky

Like this one!

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast (think I can squeeze any more alliteration into this sentence?), is built around the preserved remnants of an old walled port, dating back almost 500 years and now an UNESCO World Heritage site — in the company of such illustrious locations as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. I’ve visited a few World Heritage sites over the course of my travels (Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, the historic center of Bruges, Masada and the Baha’i gardens in Israel, Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, and Colonia in Uruguay), and I’d definitely say that Cartagena deserves its place on that list. It is outrageously beautiful, the kind of pretty that makes you take pictures of random porches and windows because you’re just trying so hard to capture whatever the essence is hiding in the walls that makes the city so bewitching. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I sure do have a lot of photos to show for it.

So we had two days in Cartagena, with our friends Mayis and Dany serving as official hosts and unofficial tour guides (this is why it’s always smart to go on vacation with someone who’s actually from the place you’re visiting). Though we didn’t realize it before, we ended up visiting the city the week before the sixth Summit of the Americas, which is drawing presidents from all across the region, including Obama and the ever-unpredictable Chávez. Needless to say, the city was positive crawling with cops — we legitimately could not walk two blocks without running into at least half a dozen cops. When people mention shows of force, I think Cartagena the week before the Summit is exactly what they’re talking about.

i'm on a boat!

BOAT CEVICHE. With bbq sauce. Winning.

Still, we didn’t let the omnipresent fluorescent green jackets and large signs proclaiming “Somos seguridad” (“We are security”) put a damper on our vacation. We did all the regular touristy things: walked along the wall, took pictures of doors and horse-drawn carriages, drank piña coladas on the beach, watched sex workers plying their trade on said beach, spotted a few local celebrities, drank micheladas, applied a lot of sunscreen and ate our weight in ice cream. Being the crew of Bourdain groupies that we are, we also made a point to eat at La Cevichería, a cozy ceviche restaurant that was featured during his Colombia “No Reservations” episode. Chalk up another point for the supremacy of Bourdain — the ceviche there was mind-blowingly good, and incredibly creative. Mine came in a dish shaped like a boat! Covered in barbecue sauce! AMERICA!

that kid totally stole my thing

The Santa Marta waterfront. For once, I'm not the one doing the victory pose.

you know, hawaii isn't the only place with pineapples

Tasty fresh mango/papaya/pineapple juice at Lulo in Santa Marta. Breakfast drink of champions!

I could (and probably eventually will) write an entire essay about how much I loved Cartagena, but I’d be remiss and a terrible travel cataloger if I didn’t talk about Santa Marta — and the beach. When I told people here that I was headed to Cartagena, almost everyone informed me that I “had” to go to Santa Marta. I’ve never been one to turn down travel recs, and it turned out that what seemed like half of WorldTeach was also headed to Santa Marta around that same time, so we decided to take two days and head up the coast to see what was so special about it. Santa Marta is about a four-hour easy drive up from Cartagena, along a pretty, mostly waterfront highway. The town itself is pretty small and not necessarily anything to write home about — it kind of looks like a mini-Cartagena that nobody has bothered to wash yet. Its definitely a bit grungier than Cartagena (which may be the key to some of its backpacker appeal), with more than a few iffy-looking neighborhoods, but it has a cute waterfront filled with vendors and some damn good restaurants. I think we might’ve eaten better in Santa Marta than I have anywhere else so far in Colombia — everything from Mediterranean to Italian to breakfast sandwiches and fresh juice.

seeing how your bag gets made

The aforementioned bags, happily-colored and direct from the source!

But you don’t go to Santa Marta just for the food, or to buy cheap bags (though both of those turned out to be excellent perks). You go for Tayrona. Tayrona is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks — and in a country with as many beautiful outdoor spaces as this one, that’s saying something. We actually didn’t visit the park itself, since we only had one day and the entrance fee is a bit pricey for a day visit (most people stay for a few days, hiking and sleeping on the beach). Instead, on the recommendation of several random people we’d met the day before (in my experience, always a good strategy for useful advice), seven of us headed to a beach called Los Angeles, right next to the park. Instead of paying $35,000 pesos and walking for two hours to reach the beach, we were at the waterfront 10 minutes and $3,000 pesos after climbing off the bus.

they do sunsets right, here

This is at least as good as someone reading me a bedtime story.

And you guys, this BEACH. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park — all primeval forests and looming mist-shrouded mountains and crashing waves and mirror-clear water. There were other people at the beach, mostly couples in hammocks or families in tents, but they mostly kept to themselves and there were no vendors in our faces like on the beaches in Cartagena. It felt like we’d discovered this place all by ourselves, like the sky and boulders and soft sand were there just for us, that day. The day at Los Angeles with six of my fellow WorldTeach ladies was probably one of my favorite days I’ve spent in Colombia so far, and my new goal for the year is to make it back there, this time for long enough to spend a few nights in one of those comfy-looking hammocks, waking up to sunlight and sand and waves stretching out in front of me all the way to that prehistoric horizon.

[Stay the digital equivalent of tuned! Many, many more photos to come this week!]

How Not to Ruin a Goodbye for Everyone You Know

bring it, times square

For the record, there are not mountains like this in New York.

My friend is leaving Colombia tonight, heading back to the States to start grad school in a month. It’s a great opportunity for her, of course, very exciting etc., but obviously on a selfish level I’m sad to lose someone with whom I’ve already spent lots of time eating pizza, drinking wine and watching the occasional Ryan Gosling movie. Also, it means I have to say goodbye to someone I really like, about seven months earlier than I’d anticipated. This unequivocally sucks.

It’s these kinds of moments where most people will inevitably trot out that old reliable: “I’m so bad at goodbyes.” This is, by far, the most socially acceptable way to react to having to deal with someone’s departure, even in the kinds of mobile, transient communities you find among international workers and travelers.

But here’s the thing, friends: nobody is good at goodbyes. They’re not something that the average human enjoys, unless you’re saying goodbye to a particularly difficult boss or horrible ex-boyfriend. In general, we’re not big on abandonment or drastic change, and goodbyes tend to involve both of those things.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that I’m good at dealing with goodbyes (please see first sentence of above paragraph, thank you). But truthfully, I would feel dishonest if I claimed to be particularly bad at them. It is possible, you know, to deal with departures without reacting to them as The Worst Thing In The History Of The World Ever. This, however, does require a few factors in your favor, some of which are definitely more controllable than others. This, I think, is more or less what works for me:

1. The first is not being a crier. If you’re prone to crying (and I know a few lovely people who fall right into this category), I got nothing for you. Sorry. Personally, I violently loathe the idea of crying in front of any entity other than my teddy bear, and do everything in my power to keep it that way. So, crying. Don’t do it. Doesn’t help.

2. The second, I’d argue, is a strong belief in personal agency and responsibility. If I want to stay in touch with someone, I will. Sure, when you leave the country, your relationships do change — I can’t text my friends at any hour about the cute teacher at work, and I have to schedule Skype calls to keep updated on the lives of people at home. The frequency changes — where I used to be in contact with some friends every week, now it’s more like once or twice a month. This is a necessary side effect of geography and new systems of telecommunication, but it’s not like these people suddenly stop existing in my life, or become less important. They’re still entirely there. If you want to stay in touch with someone, you will, one way or another. It’s as simple as that. So saying goodbye doesn’t mean that person is gone forever — unless you want it that way.

3. The third, and maybe most important, one has to do with time management, or some emotional version of picking the site for your battles. I usually do this thing where I anticipate leaving a place or people about three months ahead of time, and preemptively go through my depressed grieving process at that point. My friends think this is slightly masochistic and entirely comical, but dammit, it works for me. Granted, it does lead to a lot of mournful looks directed at things like Lake Michigan and the entirety of Davis Square, and drunken conversations (or, occasionally, somewhat more than conversations) with my friends about how much I’m going to miss them — but it also gives me a manageable amount of time to work through whatever negative emotions I’m feeling ahead of time in order to be calm when the actual moment arrives. And calmness goes a long way towards making these kinds of transitions easier.

This was most relevant at two points recently: when I graduated from college, and when I moved here in January. Both situations involved leaving people and places that I love dearly, and I spent a good amount of time during the months beforehand moping about how much I was going to miss Ian’s Pizza (oh, mac & cheese pizza, ambrosia of the Wrigleyville gods!) or sitting in my living room with my roommates at midnight talking about femme invisibility. I was probably incredibly unpleasant to be around for some of those days — but when the time came to actually leave, there was no crying. I’d already moved through that, and everything was wiped clean to make space for my excitement about whatever was to come next.

Of course, this time I’m not the one leaving, which makes it a bit harder, although the fact that I’m living in Bogotá for at least seven more months is a pretty good consolation prize. And I didn’t get that much advance warning this time either, which has pretty much negated that vital third strategy. Still, these kinds of changes are inevitable, and it’s certainly made me realize how much I’ve already established a life and routine here, in just two short months. I have friends I rely on, a favorite bakery and a standing Ultimate Frisbee date with some of my students on Monday afternoons, and I’m already comfortable enough with all of these aspects of my life that change feels peculiar, instead of still just part of the adjustment process.

So Rachel, I’m going to miss you, but good luck in New York, and thank you for helping me realize how much Bogotá, for me, has already begun to feel like home.

Four weeks, 800 words

YOU GUYS, I KNOW. I know it has been a little bit of a while. But! I promise you all, I’m still alive and generally very happy. A brief life update: We spent the first three weeks after arriving in orientation at a house in a town called Cota, just outside of Bogotá. Despite being next to the city, Cota felt like being way out in the middle of the country, complete with cows, chickens, stray dogs with the potential for fleas, all kinds of exciting plants, minimal air pollution, and a really incredible cheese shop hidden at the end of our street.

I probably would've been okay staying here for more than three weeks.

The three weeks of orientation were your typical cliche whirlwind of madness, crammed with a series of classes on everything from teaching writing to how to deal with the slightly slower pace of work here in Colombia to Spanish tongue-twisters (sorry, trabalenguas. There’s your vocabulary word for today). And of course, there was the bonding. Oh, so much bonding. After classes and dinner, most of us would head to the little tienda across the street for a beer or five — I think we probably gave the lady running it enough business to take the rest of the winter off. On a few nights, we ventured into “town” (either Cota center or the neighboring town of Chia), but the 10:30 p.m. weeknight curfew made significant adventuring kind of challenging. Oh, curfews! It really was just like summer camp (except with fewer canoes and more beer).

and then what happened?