Lingering and leaving

As of this week, I’m about a month into my long trip. These couple of weeks contain some important milestones – the end of the first month of my trip, the end of my time in Colombia, and the end of my 28th year.

Lots of endings.

I’ve learned a new thing with long-term travel: it’s not necessary to be always moving. Staying only a couple of days in each place, stuffing as many experiences as possible into a short amount of time, and leaving quickly are conventions of short trips, not long explorations. So it is that I’ve found myself changing my plans, staying extra nights in places I meant to breeze through, and delaying my departure over and over. I’ve discovered the pleasure of lingering.

It’s delightful to come to like a place enough to want to stay longer. Even more so, it’s a delight to meet fellow travelers and change plans together. In the past when I could only take short trips, I never really had the experience of making close friends on the road and spontaneously traveling together. I still remember the way the hostel staff people in Medellin would smile when I would come to the desk in the morning and ask (more than once), did they have room for me to stay just one more night? Such fun to discover the joy of lingering.

But this post started off with endings, didn’t it? They’re there on the other side of lingering. Eventually, no matter how long one stays, it’s time to leave.

It’s been bittersweet to travel like this. I love it, and at the same time it’s so sad to say goodbye to places and people you’ve lingered with.

I wonder what effect that has on a person, those goodbyes. Though we form communities and friendships when we travel, we leave them frequently too. Does it teach us to be selfish, to disregard the importance of our communities and our friendships? And what effect does it have on other people and on communities? Is is worse for the people we meet and the communities we form that we stay for a little while and then abandon them?

I would like to believe that there’s a way to travel ethically, so that those goodbyes aren’t so selfish. I would like to believe that one can travel conscientiously, so that when we do leave, we’re leaving communities and friends better than we found them. Exploring that question to find a more specific answer is one of the goals of my trip.

So – though I lingered as long as I could, I’m saying goodbye to Colombia this week, goodbye to another year of my life, goodbye to the beginning of my trip. For someone who travels, there are many goodbyes. There’s a goodbye inside almost every hello.

But, when one travels there’s also a new hello after every goodbye. This week I say hello to a new year of life (God willing), hello again to a dear friend in Uruguay, and hello again to the fantastic city of Buenos Aires, where I may linger for a good long while.

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Quiet corners of a party city

I expected to like Cartagena more than I did.

Everyone who’s traveled in Colombia recommended the city to me, but I wasn’t prepared for the number of tourists and touristy experiences crammed into a tiny space inside the old walls. I really prefer to explore new places to learn what it’s like to live and work there, not to have a manufactured touristy experience, and at times I let my disappointment get the better of me and got depressed wondering if anything in the city was real. Of course, that’s cynical – Cartagena is real, and there’s a lot that’s truly beautiful about the city. It’s just that I felt out of place. I simply wasn’t there just to party, and sometimes I felt like I was the only one.

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Still – I explored and kept my eyes open and was able to discover a few experiences in the city that didn’t feel so conventional.

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On my first full day in Cartagena I finally admitted to myself that the cold I’d been fighting was getting the upper hand, and I took the day off to lie in a hammock at the hostel and recover. Cartagena was my first truly tropical city, and it was sweltering – but lying in the hammock, sweating, taking shallow breaths and languid movements to stay as cool as possible, I started to sense the appeal of the sweltering city. There’s something delicious about relaxing into the heat and sweat; waiting for every faint breath of air that stirs the leaves of the huge tree in the courtyard; listening to the wild parrots shriek in the branches; watching the hostel’s kitten chasing lizards in the little garden. It felt peaceful and enjoyable to learn how to love the heat.

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When I was well again, I explored the city on my own to find little refreshing bits of quiet.

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One was a coffee shop/bookstore built on a colonial corner in a quiet street in old Cartagena, a few blocks away from the heavy tourist traffic. I couldn’t resist the books. Bookstores just have a better atmosphere. Original colonial brick arches framed this shop, books were crammed in floor-to-ceiling shelves complete with ladders for reaching the top shelf, and I was so inspired that I justified picking up a copy of The Little Prince in Spanish and staying for a cappuccino.

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On another day I got up around sunrise and walked the old city walls while the city woke. At that hour, the humidity is enchanting rather than oppressive, lit by delicate rosy sunrise hues in a sort of flower-colored haze that makes the city seem mysterious rather than damp and miserable. A soft breeze came over the tops of the walls. None of the street vendors were awake enough to try to sell me anything yet, and I didn’t see any other tourists out. On the walls near Cafe del Mar, I found a euphonium player doing scales and warmup exercises, not performing for anyone, just enjoying playing his instrument.

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Likewise, strolling the walls after midnight with a friend was a peaceful way to enjoy the city. As a woman, there aren’t many places in Colombian cities I’ve wanted to go after dark (it’s not that I’m afraid, it’s just common sense) – but with a tall, male, Scottish, drunk friend I felt pretty secure, so we wandered the city and climbed the walls to watch the moon over the ocean. At that hour the breeze cools the city a bit – coolness being something quite precious in Cartagena – and we could see the ocean lit by the waxing moon. Cartagena at night felt safer than other cities I’d been in, and it’s a lovely way to enjoy the streets with less heat and fewer tourists.

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So in the end I was able to find meaningful, quiet moments even in a city as loud and superficial as Cartagena.

Playa Blanca

After a week in Medellin I moved on to Cartagena, which I’ll write about later – I’ve just taken a side trip to a beach called Playa Blanca that calls for an entry of its own.

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I can’t decide where to start telling this story, there’s so much that was new and weird and beautiful and awful all at once. Playa Blanca is a superficial, touristy place, and it was hard for me to immerse myself. I’m not opposed to relaxing on the beach, drinking and talking with friends, but after the first few trips to the bathroom took me past the splintering, tiny huts where the locals stayed, it was hard to enjoy the superficial beachfront. It gave me too much to think about and too many questions to ask, like why the tourist dollars that come in haven’t allowed living standards to improve, or if it’s even that simple; and most of all how I can feel okay working on a tan and not caring about the living conditions of the people 30 feet from me. Some people say I think too much. Maybe Playa Blanca is a place that it’s better to visit and not think too hard about.

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The white sand beaches and turquoise waters are as they look in the photo, too beautiful to be real. I traveled with two friends I met in the hostel at Cartagena, and we spent most of our days in beach chairs or on the sand, staring across the water and breathing the ocean air.

Being a tourist means being asked to buy things constantly. Among the things I’m offered are cabanas, fresh-cut fruit, bracelets, stone carvings, alcoholic drinks served in coconuts, fried fish, little fried cornbread balls, coffee, and massages. I’m sure I’m leaving something out – during the daytime hours not more than ten minutes went by before a vendor would walk by offering something.

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We arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday after the large bulk of tourists had gone (the last boat leaves for Cartagena at 3:30). The beach was pleasantly quiet, still populated enough with vendors that if I wanted fresh fruit every 15 minutes I would have had plenty of opportunities, but empty enough that we had our pick of places to stay the night.

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The palm huts that line the beach are charming, made of rough wooden beams lashed together and covered with dried palm fronds. However, the charm wore off a bit for me as I realized that behind them are filthy, crumbling shacks made of corrugated metal where the vendors live. Sometimes there are no roofs. Despite this, the toilets were surprisingly clean, though basic – in order to “flush” one pours a jug of water collected in a rotting rain barrel into the commode. At the bathroom where we stay, a strip of threadbare cloth serves as the door to the bathroom.

We slept in hammocks hung from a palm cabana. The hammocks are cheap – 5,000 pesos per night ($2.50 US dollars). We were so close together we bumped each other when we moved.

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For meals we would have a famous Playa Blanca dish – fish fried whole and served with rice, salad, plantains, or French fries. It’s fantastic, and cheap. I took great pleasure in eating the gills and fins, which were crispy and salty, and I also had no problem digging out and eating the eyeballs – squishy and delicious!

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On our first night we wandered back from a beach bar where we had sat in chairs a couple of feet from the ocean, drinking piƱa coladas out of coconuts and watching a Chilean guy fishing. As he caught fish, the bar owner Rey (“king”) put the live fish in his mouth and bit their heads to kill them.

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It’s cliche and silly, but I will never get sick of drinking out of coconuts. The beach vendors use machetes to hack off the tops, pour out the water, and mix a drink inside. It’s probably an impractical way to serve a drink, but I can’t stop getting a kick out of it. It’s one of the pleasures of Playa Blanca that I was able to immerse myself in completely.

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That first night was perfect until we arrived back at our hammocks to find the wife of the owner blackout drunk, stumbling around the sand with a mostly-empty bottle in one hand. She shouted at us in garbled spanish, barely able to get words out through the haze of alcohol, until our spanish-speaking German friend Frederick got the neighbors to help calm her down. She allowed us into the hammocks, but continued shouting to herself well into the night.

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On our second night she stayed in the nearby village, and I decided there was never going to be a better time to go skinny dipping in the ocean. The beach was lit with only the occasional candle, and as before very few tourists stayed the night. The water was warmer than the air, and home to phosphorescent plankton that sparked like tiny electric shocks when I moved my arms or kicked my feet. Sabrina, Robert (a local vendor we befriended), and I swam and watched a lightning storm in the south for hours. When I finally got out of the ocean, little blue streaks appeared as I dried off – plankton that had hitched a ride and died as I dried them with my towel.

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These stories are fun to tell. It was a complex experience – delightful and new and confusing and challenging. A bit like traveling in general, I suppose.

Medellin

My journey around Colombia was off to a rough start in Bogota, and it’s an enormous relief to feel settled into traveling and exploring now. The city of Medellin, the lovely hostel I stayed in, and the lovely people I met there undoubtedly helped me transition.

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I fell in love with Medellin. As of today I’ve been here a week, and I would love to stay even longer.

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The city is enormous, far larger than any I’ve lived in – about four million residents. Yet there are green spaces – trees everywhere along the streets, little parks tucked around and between buildings. The masses of traffic spew exhaust that sticks in the nose, but the perfect springtime weather (which lasts all year thanks to the equatorial location) makes it easier to forgive them.

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I greeted Medellin in my usual fashion by wandering the streets downtown, surreptitiously people-watching and smelling the aromas of new and strange fruits sold by countless street vendors. I won’t sugar-coat it : the streets are generally dirty; poor and drug-addled humans are everywhere in evidence, and the traffic is anarchistic and violent. It is a human city, beautiful and awful by turns just like humans are.

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This is evident especially in the slums, which one can see from the air by riding the cable section of the metro system.
It’s hard for me to know what the real story is in these slums. Crumbling, destitute buildings crowd one another, decorated with laundry and dogs and piles of rubble. It looks desperately poor, though it’s also easy to romanticize the neighborhood as you catch glimpses of people greeting one another, cooking, laughing, arguing, all crammed together in a wonderful mass of humanity. I think what’s less apparent from the romantic metrocable are the gangs, violence, and lack of education. I met some foreigners who claimed the people there are happy to live in slums (really? In buildings so flimsy the roof is held on by placing bricks on top rather than nails?). I never found out the real story.

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I saw some of the things you’re supposed to see – Medellin is the home of Fernando Botero, whose paintings I saw in Bogota. In a plaza with his sculptures I found another fat cat.

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More impressive, though are the Pajaro de Paz (bird of peace) sculptures. In 1995, a bomb was placed in the original bird and exploded near a crowd of people, killing 29 and injuring 200 more. The mangled sculpture was to be removed, but Botero insisted it stay and added a replica of the original, as a reminder of the violence of the past (something Medellin is perhaps so desperate to forget that important events are erased from collective consciousness) – and as a slap in the face of the violent perpetrators, to demonstrate their ultimate failure to disrupt the city’s transformation into a peaceful, artistic metropolis.

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I took a side trip to Guatape, a town near an artificial lake. The main feature is an enormous granite monolith, which I of course climbed. After half dome, Angel’s landing, and Monserrate, I’m beginning to think I have some kind of obsession with long staircases.

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It’s the views from the top.

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It’s hard to explain why I felt so at home in Medellin. I’m sure the fantastic spring climate is a factor – spring has always been my favorite season. It’s almost enough to make me forget how much I miss the desert (almost!).