Travel update: Villa de Leyva

The small colonial town Villa de Leyva was the last place I visited before I left Colombia.

The first thing I remember is having trouble walking over the uneven streets. I’ve been places with cobbled streets before, but none that were so difficult to navigate, and I wondered what it must be like to live there and to walk everywhere on those slick stones, or to run over them. In fact I did have to run at one point that weekend, when I realized I had left my passport in our hostel and we had only half an hour before the bus to Bogota, but that was later – when we came into town it was hard enough to walk without tripping and also pay attention to the lovely old colonial buildings. I read that the streets now are actually reconstructions, and not the original roads, and that really made me wonder why they didn’t make them a bit steadier, but perhaps they came out more historically accurate this way. In any case it’s like walking on marbles and took some adjusting to.

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I came to Villa de Leyva for a weekend, but it was still very quiet. You can walk along the cobbled streets and look at the beautiful white buildings with green doors and shutters, with flowers from the courtyard gardens climbing over the walls. You can find little parks (I’m crazy about parks) and eat at little charming cafes and restaurants. There was a cafe I particularly liked that was part of a sort of complex of shops and restaurants, all set back from the street and all connected by series of small airy courtyards and passageways of cool shade opening onto more charming little courtyards and cafes. In some ways it reminded me of Tuscany, with the warm color of the paint and the way the colonnades glowed with reflected light, but Villa de Leyva has its own particular style that couldn’t truly be mistaken for anywhere in Italy.

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One morning I climbed a steep hill above the city. Near the start I met three stray dogs hanging around the park. Normally dogs unsettle me a bit, but these were friendly and didn’t seem to want anything other than to keep me company on my way up the hillside, racing each other ahead and stopping occasionally to wag their tails enthusiastically while they waited for me to catch up.

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Villa de Leyva is apparently famous for fossils, including a huge kronosaur that has its own museum. People go to the hills around the town to hunt for fossils but I didn’t really know about that when we went, so I had to be content with seeing them embedded as decoration in walls and stones on the streets.

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On Saturday the peasants and farmers in the surrounding countryside bring harvests in to a market in town. We walked there for breakfast, eating sweet arepas with chocolate. We strolled past huge piles of exotic fruits that after a month in Colombia were starting to become familiar to me – pitayas, lulos, papayas, and huge quantities of oranges, limes, and bananas. We bought juice made from a few of these blended together. I also bought a molinillo, which is the special blending tool Colombians use to whisk hot chocolate into a froth. Everywhere in Colombia people I met drank hot chocolate, usually instead of coffee in the morning, and often with little bits of mozzarella cheese dropped in to melt and give the chocolate a savory edge. The best coffee in Colombia being exported, it’s hard to find in the country and many people drink instant coffee if they drink it at all.

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My friend Javier and I had just had lunch and were on our way to the bus terminal when I remembered that my passport was still locked in a cubby at the hostel where we had stayed. It was only 30 minutes until the bus was meant to depart and the hostel was about a 20 minute walk, so I had to make a run for it. Sometimes when you travel you end up running to catch your plane or train or bus and making it at the last second, and it’s embarrassing to be running through some quiet town, especially with a huge backpack, but it’s something I think most travelers have done at least once.

I seldom forget something as important as a passport, though, so I made myself a little checklist with PASSPORT at the top for the next time I leave a hostel, just in case.

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.

Okay, just kidding

Gentle readers, lest you worry about me after my last sad entry, I will share the good news that after I left Bogota, I spent a beautiful two days in Medellin that refreshed my spirits and I am now back at a comfortable hostel enjoying the city once again. I have another sad entry to write, but I can assure you that I am writing it while relaxing in a sundress and lounging in a hammock, so don’t worry if it seems like everything is starting badly on this trip. Medellin is lovely and I’m generally in much better spirits. I’ve just had a small hiccup, which I will describe here:


Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that I’m tenacious, sometimes to a fault. I don’t admit defeat easily, and I love challenges; and it’s brought me great success at work and in my hobbies. However, I know that I sometimes take it too far – the same tenacity that allowed me to take on a managerial position and excel at it, even though it’s not my natural skill set – that same tenacity has also led me to stay in relationships longer than I should, and to continue work on projects that don’t matter long after I’ve lost interest – among other things.

So I hope you’ll understand, people of the Internet, when I say that I’m proud of myself for leaving a farm in Santa Elena less than 24 hours after I arrived, despite my intentions of volunteering there for a week or more.

I felt great about the placement when I first arrived and met my host – the pace was slow, and we had ideas to share for how I could help with the online marketing campaign he’s running. He told me he would teach me some VERY important words in spanish – I got out my notebook, expecting to write things like “please” “yes sir” “cow” “worms” “the chickens are loose” etc. Instead he taught me trueque – exchange; amañada – happy; parce – friend; bacando – cool. Good signs.

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However, I felt a little stress as we began the farm work – I’m not really made for hard labor, and I also don’t have technical expertise in construction or farming (perhaps things I should have considered before traveling to a farm), so I began to feel useless, needing to wait around for my host to tell me what to do or how to help. I hate feeling like an idiot who needs hand holding, but it comes with the territory when you’re learning a new skill, so I sucked it up for the evening – I was there to work, after all. Colombian people are gentle and kind, almost as a rule, and my host was no exception – very patient.

Over dinner I listened to the Spanish around me, feeling happy to recognize conversation fragments (I am still a beginner, but I understand a little more each day). The people I met were truly warm. Smiles had etched laugh lines in their faces, they bellowed with laughter, they cracked jokes with me and with each other. I felt – and am still sure – that this is a loving family.

Eventually, it was casually mentioned to me by my English-speaking host that I would be cooking for everyone tomorrow. Great, I thought, this is perfect – I know a lot more about cooking than I do about farming; maybe I can really contribute something here. Which meal? Oh – all of them. And how many people at each meal? Eight??

…okay, now I’m a little stressed.

It wasn’t part of my prior agreement with my host that I would cook, but it’s not an unreasonable request – the couple who owned the farm wanted me to earn my keep, and I respect that. Three meals on my first day is kind of a lot, but I assumed that they’d take it easy on me if things weren’t perfect. At some point in the evening I was also told that I would be giving the lady who owns the house an English lesson – which I was also happy to do to earn my keep. However, at that point I was beginning to wonder who I was actually working for and what their expectations were.

Before I went to bed, I was told to have coffee ready in the morning for everyone. What time? Oh, six or seven or so. And could they show me around the kitchen, since I hadn’t seen it, nor did I knew where anything (for example, coffee) was kept or what food I had to work with for the massive meals I needed to make the next day? Tomorrow, we’ll show you tomorrow.

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I was up at 6am sharp to make coffee, since I figure nobody wants to wait for their caffeine – but I found Hector, the man who runs the farm, already brewing coffee on the stove. This must have been my first big mistake – I didn’t know enough Spanish words to remind him that it was my job that morning, and my english-speaking host wasn’t awake yet, so I let it slide. I should have said something, or asked him if I had been expected to be up earlier.

Over coffee I tried not to be impatient while everyone woke up, but I was really anxious to learn the kitchen so I could start breakfast. Three of the men at the farm were constructing an additional house in exchange for their room and board (I think) and I wanted to make them a good breakfast. When I asked, the answer was “we’ll eat breakfast later”. I went upstairs starving to wait for “later”, not sure how long I was supposed to wait or if they intended to eat at all. After a time I saw the farm owners coming out with plates – they had cooked the meal for me. At this point I really, definitely should have said something. My English-speaking host was nowhere in sight and I wanted to begin preparing for lunch. I sat on the balcony sketching the chickens and trying not to panic. I still hadn’t been shown anything in the kitchen, and I didn’t know if the farm owners were covering for me somehow, or if they hadn’t really meant for me to cook anything. I also didn’t know where anyone from the farm was, and had no one to ask if there was farm work or other housework I could help with. I began to berate myself for not being savvy enough to pick up on the social cues I must obviously have missed, and for being too timid to ask questions, and cursed myself in general for thinking I could have been useful on a farm.

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It was at this point that I decided I would leave the next day – I felt so useless at farm work, and I was only going to need more hand-holding, and no one seemed to be interested in taking responsibility for teaching me. This was also my fault for not taking charge of my own farm education – but I was unsure of myself and couldn’t communicate with most of the workers, so I wasn’t sure if I was allowed or expected to interrupt them so they could tell me what to do. It was clear to me that this was not the community I had pictured, with many international travelers coming and going – my host was staying with another family, who were not primarily interested in international travelers. I reflected that I needed to improve either my Spanish, my gardening skills, or both before I came to work on another farm that was obviously not geared toward beginners. I also observed that I am tenacious, sometimes without good reason, and that maybe I didn’t need to cause myself so much stress to learn a completely new discipline. It hasn’t always been easy for me to recognize the value of the things I can do well, but I know that I do have valuable skills, even if they don’t involve farming. Maybe next time I volunteer I’ll look for a placement that involves my existing skills. My tenacity held for the day – I vowed to make a fantastic lunch and dinner for everyone before leaving the next day.

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When my host came back mid-morning I asked when they wanted lunch. “Oh, you know, one, two, three, whenever”. And what should I make? “Anything!” I didn’t recognize all of the vegetables lying in piles on the kitchen floor, but I do enjoy a challenge, and I know I could make something tasty. Could I help with anything until lunch? Oh, you know, just stuff around the house.

I stayed at the house and looked for stuff that might need my help.

When I came downstairs at 11:30, planning to start a meal that I would serve at 1:00, the farm owners were already halfway done cooking a soup and giving me disappointed looks. I didn’t know how to ask them what I was missing, so I decided to think positive – maybe they were cooking a meal for just themselves. My host arrived around 11:45 and suggested we make fried potatoes, and then disappeared. Perfect – fried potatoes are easy – I tried to continue not panicking as I looked for a way to light the gas stove, which I had still not been shown how to use (I eventually found the lighter on a high shelf). 15 minutes later the workers sat down in the dining room waiting for their meal. What happened to “oh, we’ll eat at one, or two, or three…”? Did I miss a joke? It was only 12 and they looked at me expectantly. The farm owners served them the soup they had cooked. My host returned and we salvaged the fried potatoes, which apparently I was supposed to have cooked in a deep fryer that no one told me about.

We made plates for the farm owners who had gone somewhere, and had sat down to eat when Graciela, the woman who owns the house, appeared in the doorway and treated me to 10 minutes of uninterrupted and very disappointed Spanish. I didn’t understand most of it – she speaks with a strange cadence and never stopped to see if I’d understood her – and once I realized she was angry I actively stopped mentally translating, to keep from becoming upset.

But I did catch that she was angry about the miscommunication, and that she had spent a lot of money on groceries which she felt I had wasted (she did not appreciate my fried potatoes or the salad I whipped up at the last minute). I get the feeling that she wanted me to cook the kinds of food that family normally eats. I don’t know what that would have been, having been there less than a day.

I never found out exactly what she said to, or about me. I finally realized that there had been a general misunderstanding between her and Hector, who own the farm, and my host, who was using their land to stage his project – a misunderstanding about my role and what work I would do. The laid-back answers my host gave me about times and responsibilities weren’t consistent with their expectations, and it was their expectations I was to be meeting.

At some point during her speech I decided I would leave once the lunch dishes were clean.

They were all lovely, warm people – even Graciela, who chewed me out. But it was clear that the arrangement on the farm was not what I expected – certainly wasn’t what was advertised when I signed up – and that I would probably be working for the Spanish-speaking farm owners, not my english-speaking host.

This was the key moment. If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking the situation isn’t unsalvageable – just a misunderstanding, still a lot of potential to be great. I hate giving up, and I realized that I hadn’t given the situation much chance to improve. I was thinking all of that. But I was also thinking about my decision before, not to spend energy and stress learning a new discipline when I have good skills already. I was remembering how much stress I felt at not being able to communicate – especially when my host would lapse into Spanish giving me directions and not wait for me to let him know I understood. I was shaken from the talking-to I’d been given, and indignant because it wasn’t really my fault. I was afraid of all the other ways I would surely offend the farm owners – I was bound to make mistakes if I stayed there a full five days, and I was already on their bad side.

So I did it, dear readers – I threw in the towel on this situation without giving it my usual tenacious college try. I feel guilty at disappointing my host, who could have used help with things i really could do – like writing emails in English, and painting signs. But I made a rare choice in favor of my own selfish comfort, here at the beginning of my trip when I’m already outside my comfort zone.

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(Minus the sundress and hammock, which are definitely within my comfort zone).

Impressions from week one

Today is my fifth morning in South America. I’m leaving Bogota to travel to Medellin, and then onward to the northern coast, so I’ll take this opportunity to write some scenes from my first week. That’s what the first week is for me currently – a collection of scenes:

– The rooster starts to crow at around 5 in the morning. Who keeps a rooster in an apartment complex in a heavily populated neighborhood of a major metropolitan city? “Cock-a-doodle-doo” is too cheerful an onomatopoeia for any sound at such an indecent hour. I meant to ask Javier for the spanish word, hoping it would be more appropriate.

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– I eat well. Eggs, tomatoes, arepas (little cakes made of cornstarch or flour with cheese) for breakfast (thanks Javier); ajiaco (soup); stir fry and chicken at home; and exotic fruits I’ve never seen or heard of before. I especially like the pitaya, which is small, yellow, and spiky on the outside, mild and sweet on the inside.

– At the museo Botero, Javier tells me that Botero painted fat people (and fat fruits, and fat violins…) because he wanted a way of making his subjects significant, as though through their enormous size they would acquire a kind of grandeur and permanence. The fat Mona Lisa is my favorite.

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– Everyone makes me feel welcome. My Couchsurfing host Javier has a guest bedroom for me and threatens to kick me out when I try to help with the dishes. I meet other couchsurfers for dinner and drinks. Everyone is patient, friendly, welcoming.

– We walk through the historic neighborhood La Candelaria – historically significant and also historically unsafe. A security guard rests an enormous machine gun against her hip while she answers a text message on her iphone.

– Despite stern warnings from travel websites and Javier, I find the hike up Monserrate to be well-guarded and heavily traveled, mostly by high school girls. I’m delighted by brilliant flowers lining the path and increasingly impressive views of the city. I make the 2500 meter climb in about an hour, which is great considering the altitude (bogota is already 3000 meters above sea level). I’m told some people run up the trail in 30 minutes or less! At Monserrate I visit the little chapel and watch blue and green hummingbirds among the vivid blooms of plants I’ve never seen before.

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———
It was a strange week. I was comfortable and well taken-care of, yet I didn’t feel like myself – truthfully, I wasn’t very happy. Transitions aren’t easy, even if you’re transitioning to something you’re excited about – maybe I was homesick, maybe depressed.

They’re not pleasant feelings, and I try not to let myself feel guilty for being unhappy (one of the awful things about depression – the depression makes you sad for no reason, and then you feel guilty for feeling sad with no reason, and then you’re depressed again). However, I welcome these feelings, unpleasant though they are. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my moods and their meanings. I try not to make decisions based only on my mood, but instead to use my emotions as one of many tools I can use to make choices.

As I write this my mood is shifting. I’m settling in to travel mode, feeling more comfortable and confident. I’ll write again from my next stop with more thoughts.