Wednesday, March 25, 2015

finishing up

At the beginning of the trip,
in Cartagena
In many ways we travel like children. Our other-language skills are rudimentary at best, restricted to please and thank you, yes and no and I don't understand. This can lead to all sorts of experiences, some good and some bad, and sometimes just very confusing. When we were at the airport in Medellin, after we checked in we were directed to the tax desk. In many countries we have to pay to leave the country, so this wasn't confusing -- but as US citizens, for some reason we were exempt from paying the fee to leave Colombia. We weren't at all sure why we had to go to the tax desk, but we went, and the guy did whatever he did and sent us back to the ticketing agent.

When we got there, she gave us a bunch of money, $75 more or less. We had NO idea why. No idea at all. If we are asked to pay money, we don't know why, and if we receive money we don't know why. The money confuses us, and if we get too overwhelmed during an interaction we simply hold open our wallet, our open hands filled with coins and bills, and trust the person not to cheat us. Children.

Our experience was that Colombians were friendly and kind, and helpful to us. They didn't seem to understand that we had no idea what they were saying no matter how many times we said no habla espanol, but we were always able to get what we needed. Alexis, at Hostal La Finca, used a great word when he was talking about the small town of Sopetran; he said the people there were very authentic, and that perfectly fit our experiences. Of those we met on our trip, no one seemed concerned about putting on airs or a false front. In fact, this was something that struck me whenever I talked with Alexis, who is half Colombian: my own false, glib social self didn't work. When we returned from seeing Sopetran, for instance, he asked how we liked it and I said something vague and generic and superficial -- it was great, we liked it very much. With a big smile, he asked what specifically we liked about it. A real engagement, not a top-level bit of nonsense.

We think the primary reason for our deep enjoyment of this vacation was our time at Hostal La Finca, rather than an overall feeling about the places we visited, but that's often the way it goes when you spend only a week in a place. Cartagena was lovely, and the surprise of those dancers in the square still delights me; Medellin wasn't at all what I expected if I only relied on the news reports of the last couple of decades -- it was a vibrant, energetic city, and the cable car trip we took was great fun (although for me, it's stained by my terrible trouble driving through the city); Santa Fe was a disappointment to us; and San Jeronimo, Sopetran, and Mathilde and Alexis were simply wonderful. If we could still be at La Finca we'd be very happy. (And if you ever make a trip to Colombia, find your way there!)

Here is the full set of photos, 171 of them. The world is big and there are so many places to see, so this may end up being our only trip to Colombia -- but if we ever go back, we'll definitely return to La Finca.

Adios, Colombia.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Sopetran and our last full day

There are a couple of small towns in the area around our hostal, and Alexis and Mathilde both said that Sopetran was the least touristy one of them all. Although they gave us a map showing us how to get there through the mountain roads, of course I missed the turn and we ended up taking another route. That was OK -- every route is gorgeous there, and our mission was to see Sopetran, have some lunch, and enjoy our last day.

The GPS we rented with our car wasn't always good about knowing whether a street was one-way or not, so as we wound our way into Sopetran, sure enough it sent us the wrong way down a one-way street. I turned on the next possible street and ran into a traffic jam getting into the square; a man who was trying to sell DirectTV said something to me, I said my usual (no habla espanol, lo siento) and he immediately smiled and helped direct me through the mess. So friendly and warm and helpful, nearly everyone we encountered.

We were there on a busy Saturday morning, and the square was filled with music, trucks, buses, cars, and people.

A big church anchors the square, as always
inside the church
paintings of Jesus lined the ceiling
After we did our little bit of ATM business, we rounded the square a couple of times to find a place we wanted to eat lunch. We settled on this one:

Hi honey!
As always, we had no idea what to do, exactly, and couldn't ask anyone. Should we go inside to the counter and place our order? Take a table? I found a young woman who worked there and just kind of pointed to a table, so she followed us and stood there, waiting. I said, "Menu?" And then my standard, no habla espanol, and she started listing dishes. We had no idea what the different options were, but pollo asado seemed like a good bet given the name of the restaurant. She rattled off what were apparently options, and we pointed at a plate on the table next to ours and nodded. Yes? She said something, I think she was asking this or that? And I said si, si. She smiled and took my hand and we went into the restaurant, to a case with a big chicken inside. Si, I said with a big smile. Again she asked me this or that, and again I said, si! She smiled again and apparently gave up on me, and waved me back to my table. We'd get whatever we got, and that would be just fine with us.

Here's what we got:

Pollo, arroz, frijoles, plantain, papas, y lettuce. I don't know the word for lettuce.
Also, a couple of arepas. 
Again, I say: Colombia is a very tough place to be a vegetarian. Given my own choices, I would only eat vegetarian, but I also don't want to be a pain so I go along. I'm also grateful when someone cooks for me so I do the best I can. And I have to say: that chicken was good.

The darling waitress had our number, and when we were finished and it was time to pay the bill, she didn't bring the check. She brought the actual kind of money we needed to pay her:

She just held one of these in her hands. It's ~$7.70 US. For both our big lunches, plus two drinks and a beer. Good food, cheap.
I laughed and wanted to hug her -- so adorable she was. So we handed her the money with a smile, and we went on our way. It still makes me happy to remember that.

We walked around a bit more and kept hearing very loud music. Each little place was blasting music, one place after another. Restaurants, cafes, shops, billiards, and even people's homes. We were standing on a corner, trying to figure out where the very loud music was coming from, and then we noticed the large speaker in the open window of someone's home, facing outward to the street. Lots of music everywhere.

a random street corner in Sopetran; we always had to take pictures of the places we parked our car,
something like leaving breadcrumbs along the way so we could find our way back.
To say that Marc and I are both directionally challenged is an understatement.
There were all kinds of buses -- some big with dark windows and air conditioning, and some like this:
brightly colored, open sides, and used to deliver both goods AND people.
We headed back to La Finca with an increasingly heavy heart, because our time there was winding down. We swung on the hammocks, Marc took a dip in the pool (I was still too sunburned), and before dinner we took a last sunset walk:

Back at La Finca; we usually ate our dinners at that little table.
A family with three kids and two other couples arrived in the late afternoon, so the whole vibe was very different than it had been. Mathilde made dinner for everyone, and afterwards Marc and I spent the evening on our deck, listening to the birds, the conversations, and the music blasting across the mountains from some house on a ridge opposite ours. At its most booked, I think 18 people can stay at the hostal; with the 11 of us there that night -- and people weren't obnoxious at all -- it made me appreciate so much the couple of days we had the place to ourselves. Mathilde and Alexis were so gracious, having easy and friendly conversations with everyone, and hosting with apparent ease.

The next morning, after breakfast, we packed and piddled and enjoyed the views and felt increasingly reluctant for the hours to pass. When it was time to say goodbye, I kept crying and feeling sad to leave that beautiful, beautiful place. We hugged Mathilde and Alexis and I pulled out of their driveway with eyes full of tears. What a beautiful place, what wonderful people. I can only smile when I remember them both.

I had been dreading the trip back to the airport; getting through Medellin the first time was very stressful and I kept getting lost, and I anticipated it would be the same in reverse. And it was. The GPS system kept us from being eternally lost, because when I'd miss a turn it would at least shift gears and give us a new route, but it always seemed to be confusing right when I needed clarity the most. Right when I most needed to see the route on the little map, text would pop up over my current location and I couldn't see the intersection. We did get lost a couple of times and then we hit really terrible traffic and road construction, all on the uphill climb. I spent a lot of time riding the clutch in first gear, stopping and pausing and inching ahead and stopping. By the time we got to the airport and turned in the car, I was exhausted.

Our flight left Medellin at 6:45pm for a quick trip to Panama City. We had a short layover, and left for NYC around 9:30pm, and arrived at JFK at 3:30am. By the time we got home it was 5:30-ish, and 27 degrees. The beautiful, warm loveliness of Hostal La Finca seems so far away. Of course this is a thing to love about travel -- now we carry that place, those beautiful people, with us wherever we go. Now we know what it's like there, and if we need to, we can close our eyes and revisit Colombia, Cartagena, Medellin, San Jeronimo (Heronimo, Lori!), Sopetran, the Hostal La Finca, Mathilde and Alexis.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

San Jeronimo

The place we're staying doesn't really have an address; it's on "unnamed road" or "unpaved road" high up in the mountains above San Jeronimo (which, despite our mispronunciation, is actually pronounced San Heronimo, we are such gringos). Not having an address made it impossible to use our GPS system, but luckily we had directions from Mathilde, who runs the place with her boyfriend Alexis. So we left Santa Fe pretty confident we would find it.

If ever there were two people who should never be confident about driving somewhere it would be us.

We got to San Jeronimo, turned left at the Texaco, fine! Into the very small town, immediately lost. Drive drive drive, uh-oh I think we've surely missed it, turn around. Uh-oh, we're lost. Let's just head back toward Santa Fe and try the approach again. Back toward San Jeronimo, left at the Texaco, into town LOST. Again. Turn this way -- yeah, this is surely it, uh-oh we've surely gone too far and we're lost. Repeat. Finally we found our way back to San Jeronimo and stopped in the square. I parked along a curb and Marc went into an Internet cafe, hoping someone there might speak a little English. While I waited in the car, a police officer stuck his head in my window.

"No habla espanol," I said. He said something to me in Spanish, to which I held my palms up and shrugged, the universal sign of lost people everywhere. Then I pointed at the Internet cafe and said, "Mi esposa no habla espanol." My wife does not speak Spanish. He laughed and walked toward the cafe, where Marc and three other officers joined him.

They were SO NICE
They looked at our map, asked Marc if we had a telephone number for the Hostal La Finca, where we were staying, and of course we didn't. While Marc was in the car with me, frantically tearing through all our paperwork hoping that surely we had a phone number somewhere, one of the police found the number and called Mathilde. Later we learned that he had said to her, "There are two foreigners here who are wanting to stay with you."

Recognizing how hopeless we were, two police climbed on a motorcycle to escort us to the Hostal La Finca, up a rocky, rutted, unpaved road 7km up the mountain. We bounced along behind them, crawling in first gear, and they rode in front of us sweating in their heavy gear. When we finally arrived, we hopped out and asked Mathilde if it would be appropriate for us to offer them some money for their help. She asked and they said, "We wouldn't say no."

Hostal La Finca is run by a young couple, Mathilde and Alexis. She's from Stuttgart and he is from Munich and Medellin (his dad is German and his mom is Colombian). They are absolutely adorable, and their grace and energy are really what make the place so special. They have a system of volunteers; if you work ~6 hours/day, you can stay for free. Right now there is a tree surgeon staying/working here. An American woman stayed here for a while and cooked for the guests and taught Mathilde how to make bread. It's a pretty cool way to keep the property going and growing. The property includes dorms and one big room with a huge deck around it; that one's ours.

the deck is wrapped around with gorgeous views. We ate breakfast every morning at that little green table and chairs
on the far right, and spent a lot of time swinging in those hammocks, listening to and watching the birds. I did yoga there
yesterday afternoon, with the brilliant yellow birds swooping past and Marc swinging in the hammock.
It's an extraordinary place, in every way. The grounds are just breathtaking.

the view from our deck
Everywhere. Just everywhere.
We could watch the changing sky forever.
They have big plans for their property, which means we'll just have to go back to see the changes!
In addition to the gorgeous scenery, they also have this great pool.
Mathilde's and Alexis's dog, Caña (pronounced Kahn-yuh, like sugar) is such a sweet dog; it's her job to escort the hostal guests and she is very talented. Yesterday morning Marc and I hiked down to the waterfall, and I was scared and timid, requiring Marc to hold my hand as we took a zig-zag path down the hillside. Caña went slowly, took us the zig-zag route, pausing and waiting for me. Later that day Marc and Caña went alone and she just tore ahead straight down the hillside -- recognizing, apparently, that Marc was not scared. We took a walk last night and left her behind as we closed the gate to the property, but several yards down the road she came bursting through the barbed wire fence and landed on the road in front of us, to walk with us. She's pretty great.

There's Caña, at the edge of the waterfalls. Such a great dog -- we miss her already!

Because it's a hostel, there is a community kitchen and if you bring your own food you can prepare your meals here. OR, for such a shockingly small price Mathilde will cook for you, and we can't believe how great her food is. The first night here we had the best sauerkraut I've ever had, a mash of potatoes and beets and carrots, a thick slice of ham, a great little salad with juicy red cherry tomatoes, avocado, and bits of mango, and homemade bread -- plus a smoothie of ginger and something, I can't remember now. Breakfasts are big and include homemade bread and jams; our first morning the eggs were scrambled with cheese and tomatoes, and this morning it was a Spanish tortilla. The jam yesterday was orange, so delicious, and this morning it was mango and banana. Last night she made us a Belgian stew, a salad of shredded carrots and tomato in a fantastic orangey dressing, and homemade rolls -- with fresh blackberry juice (really good, by the way!). Dinner is ~$6.

We're so glad our last few days of our vacation are here, in this remote, beautiful place. We could wander the enormous grounds for days, take walks up and down the mountain, or drive to nearby villages. Or just swing in hammocks, read, nap, walk, listen to the birds and to Mathilde's great laugh.

We took a lot of walks up and down the hill from La Finca. The first afternoon we walked to a church a short ways up the mountain.

look at the top of that tree --
the church also has a school
coffee bushes, banana plants, and mangos
the cattle are MAGNIFICENT
Marc getting a good shot -- one of his art shots, he always says. That makes me smile.
These orchids are just everywhere.
And this -- looks like it's been outlined.
No filters on this picture, just the ordinary brilliance of that red.
What? Don't your chickens sit on swings?
Sigh. Gosh we miss these views.
You would too. The Colombian Andes, so beautiful.
Cows on all the hillsides.
Today, our last full day at La Finca, I think we're going to head out to see the nearby non-tourist town of Sopetran, and back to San Jeronimo (Heronimo, Lori!). We had the place entirely to ourselves yesterday, but it's a bank holiday weekend coming up and lots of Colombians are arriving today so it'll be a very different experience. And on that note, we're off!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Santa Fe de Antioquia

Santa Fe de Antioquia is about 53km away from Medellin. We set out from Medellin with our trusty GPS and yet somehow I still kept JUST missing the turnoff, seeing a half second too late that I needed to veer right instead of going straight. A good 45 minutes later we still had 53km to go. We definitely took the unscenic route through and out of Medellin. We finally got far enough out of town that I felt pretty sure we'd get to Santa Fe. The roads were mountainous, sinuous, steep. Plenty of big trucks too, and tight hairpin curves, so we spent a lot of time stuck behind a big old truck, unable to get around. There was one long tunnel, and a few more kilometers, and then we were there.

So far our hotels in Colombia have had one uniform feature: No windows. No windows in the room, so dark, closed-in spaces. Our hotel in Santa Fe was no exception. It was pretty gross, actually, and so we headed out to walk around the tiny little town.

I felt pretty harrowed. Driving in Medellin will do that to me.
I sat at a little table in the main square to have a beer, while Marc returned to the hotel to get some papers. While I was sitting there, an old drunk guy came up to me and started talking to me. I tried my (also true) line, no habla espanol. As always, he was undeterred and just launched into a Spanish monologue. He also kept standing closer and closer to me. He started to sit down at my small table and I finally shouted NO, and he ambled off. I wasn't threatened, but it also didn't feel very good. Marc returned, and we had a mid-afternoon lunch at a restaurant ranked #2 out of the 12 available in Santa Fe. Those rankings are relative, obviously, and this #2 was not very good at all. The setting was charming, at least.

The courtyard in the restaurant -- our view, which we preferred to the view of our food. Meh.
Still not wanting to go back to our dark, dank little room -- with crumbling, dirty walls painted a dingy institutional green -- we wandered around the town. It would be almost impossible not to be able to buy meat in Santa Fe. Every block seemed to have at least one butcher shop. Colombians love their beef.

the square
the view out the back of our hotel
We returned to our room for a little nap; we're still sunburned and it seems to be making us tired. Marc always brings instant coffee and makes a short cup after a nap, but he saw that there were no glasses of any kind in our room so he went to the desk/restaurant, assuming it was a simple oversight. Nope! He nearly got into a screaming match with a woman, who finally agreed to give him two plastic cups. We also had to partially make our bed; the fitted sheet was on the bed, and the spread on top, but the flat sheet was folded and placed on top of the spare bed. It was just a crappy room all the way around.

We went back for one more walk through town, enjoying the evening feeling. It's a charming little town, with at least three giant churches.

sunset starting to happen behind the big church
the quiet of a weeknight in Santa Fe, which apparently gets crazy busy on the weekend, with people from Medellin
another church
After a strange night of sleep in the pitch-black room (but with a green laser light in my eyes from the air conditioner mounted up at the ceiling), we had breakfast in the hotel and hit the road for San Jeronimo. Now THAT was quite a story.

beach and Medellin

After our couple of days and nights in the old part of Cartagena, we went to a beach hotel ~20 minutes away. The beach was probably one of the ugliest and least appealing we've ever seen, so we just hung around the pool. The food at the restaurant hotel was amazing -- good thing, because there was nothing else in the vicinity.

the inside of our morning arepa -- somehow there is an egg inside that thin, crispy crust
this is how it looked before we cut into it -- like a very thin, crisp balloon
lots of bougainvillea everywhere, so pretty
we spent most of our time around the pool, which we shared with dozens of wasps.
I got very sunburned.
sunset over the Caribbean
We had a very short flight over the mountains into Medellin, where we rented a car and enormous tension ensued for me, the driver. Medellin is such a big and crowded city, there are days and times of day that we were not allowed to drive in the city. Luckily, none of those times/days intersected with our very brief time in the city. But the fact that they need to do that tells you something about the crowdedness of the city. It's not as insane as traffic in Vietnam, nor are there are as many motos, but there was enough of it all to make me stressed out. Motorcycles suddenly appear out of nowhere and weave in and out, and I never knew exactly where I needed to be. By the time we finally got to the hotel (during rush hour) I was a noodle. The premiere beer is apparently Club Colombia, which I didn't like very much, so I had an Aguila beer and settled down a bit.

Our hotel in Medellin was . . . strange. It's called the Art Hotel, and I gather it sees itself as some kind of center of the arts, with rooms. There was a three-person exhibit hanging on the walls of the lobby, and the lobby also included a movie theater. The place was stark, and except for the enclosed courtyard, around which the rooms circled, there was absolutely no light to be had. Our room was so dark we had no idea what time of day it was, ever.

here's the central courtyard -- the rooms were set so far away from it, and tucked underneath
overhanging walls, leaving them in near-complete darkness. Moody, I guess?
and here's the theater. They were showing Biutiful, among other movies. Kind of strange, yes?
We went to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and most of the dishes included fat back. This is a tough place to be a vegetarian. The choices were chicken with fat back, pork with fat back, beef with fat back. I can't remember if there was a fish option, but if there was it came with fat back. I got a piece of grilled chicken, one of the rare options that didn't include fat back.

Marc's dish -- super fine ground beef, a big curving piece of fat back, some kind of sausage, an egg,
a bowl of menudo possibly (it included tripe), and a big bowl of beans.
condiments, including an arepa, a bowl of chopped cilantro, something yummy in oil, a half an avocado and a banana
There is almost NO English spoken here; the people at the front desk spoke English well enough, but it's very strange, it's as if everyone else has no awareness that some people don't speak Spanish. When we fumble our way with our tiny bit of Spanish -- primarily including no habla espanol -- they simply keep speaking Spanish as quickly as before, and with no acknowledgement that we don't have a clue what they're saying. We found more English in Laos. We don't expect people to speak English; we are in their country, after all, the onus is on us, but it's just very strange the way they don't seem to understand that we can't understand them. Ordinarily people get that, and then slow down and start acting things out, speaking very simply. Not here. Maybe there has been no English-speaking tourism for so long because of the drug cartels and wars? No idea. We stopped for coffee before heading out for our day in Medellin, and I ordered a cup of drip coffee. The woman who served it spent 10 minutes, I think, telling me the history of coffee in Colombia, the three coffee-growing regions, the different climates in each and how they affect the beans, on and on. I THINK. I caught every 25th word, more or less. She just kept talking and talking, her whole spiel. It's kind of funny, but also frustrating that we can't work together in some way. I feel reduced to the position of a child. I can say please, thank you, no, yes, more, I don't understand you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

The main thing we planned to do, during our very brief one-night stay in Medellin, was to take a cable car ride up to a stop on one of the mountains surrounding Medellin. We took a cab through the city, and in one place came upon what might have been a big police action of some kind. There were armored trucks and police decked out in full armor; they looked like action figures with big guns. None of the people standing around seemed upset by any of it. This is one problem with not knowing the language at all -- we rarely have any idea what's going on. Sometimes that's scary, sometimes confusing, and sometimes kind of fun. It can lead to a "well, who knows, let's do it!" adventure.

We'd planned to ride the cable car up to the end of the line, walk around a bit, maybe have lunch, then return to the hotel. We bought our tickets and -- like everyone else there, including natives -- had to have the police help us figure out how to use our ticket to get through the turnstile. Seriously, almost no one knew how to do it. We climbed aboard, and in the cable car realized there was another trip we could take at the end of this line. Hmm. We'll see. So up we went:

very fancy cars and stations
and up we go, up the mountain and over what we think are poor communities
up we go, Medellin spreading out below -- I am afraid of heights but this wasn't scary
higher up, more rural
beautiful, in the clouds
So we got to the end of the line and decided to transfer and take the other trip. We had no idea where it went, how far it was, NOTHING. We knew it went up, and that's all we knew. Adventure!

Transfer -- much more expensive trip.
And up we went. Into the cloud forest. We never saw another soul on the trip up.
No one in the cars coming towards us. No one. Ever.
On and on, up and up, no idea where we'd end up. It seemed eternally to go up.
I started wondering if we'd slipped into the Twilight Zone. Maybe we'd crossed
into the land of the dead.
A gap in the clouds -- we could see below! What's that, near the base of the tower?
Dos caballeros!
We were really starting to wonder if we'd ever stop. Finally we stopped climbing and settled into a straightaway, then a slight descent, and then we saw the terminal station coming up. What could possibly be up there? We were on the other side of the mountain, but hadn't seen any living anything for such a long time. It seemed to be some kind of natural park, but we don't really know what it was.

what we found at the top
pretty flowers -- and a very few people, aside from the few who worked there
This sign was in the car heading back down to the ground. DANG. I really felt like doing some prancing.
We navigated our way through getting a cab back to the hotel, then we were off to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a 54km drive. Of course I kept taking the wrong turns so we went for a good 45 minutes with 54km still to go, but we finally made it. I'll put all that in the next post.