Summer Flashback: Apologies, and That Time I Couldn’t Breathe For an Hour

So, yes, I realize it’s been rather a while since I dropped by this corner of the internet to say hello. I’m just going to be honest and admit that about 30% of it is me being lazy; the other 70% is some combination of busy/holiday weekends, the madness of ending the school year, an inability to edit photos in a timely fashion and, most of all, the fact that I’ve been busting my posterior body parts trying to find something resembling a job for next year. Cover letters are hard, y’all.

But let’s put that all aside, shall we? In my continuing series of Making My Friends Sad By Reminding Them (Usually Through Photography) of Events That Happened Five Months Ago, I present: the tale of the infamous Cotopaxi volcano!

Those of you that know me in real life, or at least through the facelibro, may have heard some mention of this volcano. It is apparently the world’s most photographed volcano, due to its photogenic conical shape, so I couldn’t resist. Plus, it’s a volcano! We don’t have any of those at home! Cotopaxi was on the top of my list of things that needed to be done, and luckily I have awesome friends that also enjoy torturing themselves by walking up hills at very high altitudes. So after we spent a few days frolicking around the cloud forest in Mindo (photos, I know, I promise. Someday), we headed back to Quito and then suited up in our new alpaca gear for a day of conquering the mountain. Or something like that.

What they don’t tell us sea-level-dwelling folks (yes, I know Bogotá is high up, but I was born by the ocean, dammit) is that hiking at altitude is hard as hell. Maybe they tell us and we just don’t listen. Either way, our journey began when we hopped off the bus at a random bend of Ecuadorean highway, across four lanes from a wooden sign marking the entrance to the national park. We dashed across the highway, seasoned from months of dodging Bogotá traffic, and ambled up to a building where a few guys were sitting by pickup trucks in various states of functionality. These, it appeared, were the guides. One dude took it upon himself to be our guide for the day — I am a terrible person and can’t recall his name, but I do remember that he was excellent at maintaining a comfortable interior temperature in the truck and even better at driving with one arm (I didn’t ask what happened to the other one. I assume wild mountain beasts).

Getting to the entrance of the park, it turns out, is the easy part. Once you have your guide and corresponding vehicle, said guide then drives you along the extremely bumpy 19-kilometer or so path to the mountain itself. Along the way, we rolled through undoubtedly icy-cold streams, wound up and down hills, passed through clouds and over vast fields of short high-altitude plants, and learned various facts about the geological makeup of the place (summary: LAVA. Also, layers). We made a pit stop at a small hut on the way to sip some interior-warming coca tea and avoid the guy trying to sell us hats. He obviously couldn’t see the alpacas perched on our heads. And then, onwards! Mountain-bound!

Ecuador is at least 87% volcano

This is where we’re going…

At the foot of the volcano was where things got exciting. Crossing a plain edged by craggy mountains and a chilly lake, we spotted movement on both sides of the car. Then, suddenly, we were surrounded by tall, shaggy beasts: wild volcano horses! I don’t think I’d ever seen horses in the wild before then, and they were seriously beautiful creatures — their coats looked thick enough to use as sleeping blankets. There was even a baby horse, wobbling along between its parents. I think we made our poor guide stop the car like five times so we could document the horses, but it was worth it. And yes, I spent the next hour with the song stuck in my head. Also worth it.

By the time we’d recovered from all of the horse excitement, we were winding our way up the side of the volcano itself, to the parking lot conveniently located at about 4,400m (just multiply it my 3, fellow Americans). For the record, we’re at around 2,800m here in Bogs, so this is a significant step up even for us. And you feel that step the moment you take one, I promise.

Upon disembarking from our transport, our guide pointed up the side of the mountain at a yellow building seemingly an arm’s length away. That was the refugio, he told us — as far up as it was recommended we walk without a permit (or at least some better jackets and snow boots). The walk should be about an hour, he said, and he’d be waiting for us when we got back. The sun had just broken out of the clouds, I could see the actual, real-life snow on the peak of the volcano and the path was lying right ahead of us. I was ready.

You know how on mountains, landmarks look tantalizingly close but are actually brutally far away? Now, imagine that effect, but you can only take 10 steps before you have to stop and catch your breath — that was Cotopaxi. I’ve never had such a hard time breathing in my life — it honestly felt like I was hyperventilating all the way up the chalky, ashy slope. My legs hurt, my lungs burned, I kept yawning to try to open my air passages, my feet kept sliding on the ash (remember, we’re walking on old lava here), I was definitely getting sunburned, and the cheerful groups of intense mountain climbers with their intense ice boots descending as we were going up just made me feel more self-conscious. The 400-meter ascent (from 4,400 to about 4,800) took an hour and pretty much all of the self-control I had in my body. It was also — and still is — one of my favorite things I’ve done all year.

The feeling of standing at the refugio sign, staring down the slope of fine ash particles to the tiny cars in the parking lot and the plain stretching out from the bottom of the mountain, stretching my legs and catching my breath for the first time in an hour, was like a slow endorphin rush. I climbed that, my body was telling itself. I don’t know what my goddamn idiotic brain was thinking, but I climbed that. I felt pretty badass. And the hot chocolate and soup in the refugio didn’t hurt either.

But the second best part? The way down. The ascent may have taken us over an hour, but the descent took about ten minutes, tops. Because ash, on a slope, does a really good impression of a slide. We basically skied down the side of the volcano, each step sliding five feet in the soft terrain. It felt like sliding down a sand dune. Except cold. And really high up. In Ecuador.

I’ve never made my lungs work so hard in my life, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.


Going Back to Cali

Gallery

This gallery contains 40 photos.

So much has happened over the last month or so that it’s become hard for me to keep track of exactly what I’ve done, where, with whom — and whether I’ve done these adventures the justice of writing about them. … Continue reading

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

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!]

Geography lessons

So, it’s Bogotá! Word came down from on high this week, and in exactly 17 days, I’ll begin waging my campaign to convince Bogotá that it wants to be my home. It’s hard for me to express how excited I am about this, and even harder for me to say with certainty why I’m excited. Or, more accurately, I don’t yet have the slightest idea of ALL the reasons I should be excited, and I won’t know them until I’m there. Or maybe even until I leave and start to figure out what I miss.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The point is: BOGOTÁ! For those of you who failed seventh-grade geography, that’s the capital of Colombia, home to about 8 million people and perched way up in the Andes, right about in the geographic center of the country. As an unabashed city girl who’s never lived more than 8 miles from a major urban center in my life (and has no intention of doing so anytime in the immediate future), I couldn’t be more thrilled about my placement. I can’t wait to get lost in Bogotá, and even more than that, I can’t wait until I’m at the point where I stop getting lost and begin to actually know where I am.

If you need me, I’ll be spending the next two and a half weeks dreaming about mountains.