After over a month sitting just on top of the equator, I have just started to understand how far I have traveled. How far I am from home, far from California, far from the Bay, far from Mexico, far from DF, our starting point in these travels, far from Central America, from Guate, El Salvador, Nicaragua and after all we have seen and traveled including the five day boat journey across the Caribbean, far from Panama. But at the same time I feel like we have achieved something concrete in our travels, we bridged the gap between Central and South America , we made it to another continent! And here we are, enjoying the company and awesome community of our hosts Hector and Monica, here in this cold city of brick skyscrapers, Bogotá.
We spent Thanksgiving in Portobelo , Panama , an old Spanish fort equipped with cannons which, despite all its’ amour, was sacked various times by English pirates, including Henry Morgan and Francis Drake. The town also received cargo boats of enslaved Africans, and where once was a slave auction block now lies a local cemetery, with a historical plaque remembering the inhumane past. The local church displays a Black Christ bearing a heavy wooden cross. The town itself, as much of Panama , is a mix of Mestizo, Black, Indigenous and Chinese, with a few international tourists trying to find passage across the Caribbean to South America. We made some good friends in Portobelo, drinking the rainy nights away with boxed red wine and cola. Some of the people we met in Panama proved the test of chance possibility as we bumped into them thereafter in Colombia. Our fellow crew members of our sea vessel, the Melody, included our skipper Mark, from California, and his lovely wife Paola, from Baranquilla; three Israeli friends traveling together, Meyer, Joan and Noah; a retired and well traveled Czech Canadian Peter; a funny and laid back Swiss bank lawyer, Daniel; and Julie, a very cute and friendly young woman of 18 traveling on her own from Vienna, Austria. While we were waiting in town and preparing to spend five days with our crew in a tiny space, we also hung out with other passengers-to-be including a great family living in New Mexico, Paola (Spanish), Bill (Jersey) and their inexhaustible son Kai. An aging surfer from Long Beach and a German traveler who tried unsuccessfully to hitch a ride to Colombia completed our company over that stormy Thanksgiving weekend.
We waited and waited and the rain filled the town square in plain view of the hotel balcony, where we chatted, drank, made sandwiches, played cards and lounged in the hammock. Vladi and I escaped when the rain was light and saw the eerie and wet stone ruins of the violent past around town. Our first intent on the Melody brought us back to Portobelo to wait some more. We met Mark at the wave smacked dock at six in the morning; it was still dark out. Our tennis shoes were already soaked with bay water and we were getting wetter by the minute; it hadn’t stopped raining all night and a light mist was sprinkling down. Mark ferried us and our backpacks in his plastic blow-up dingy to the Melody, where we climbed aboard. The waves were strong enough in the bay that Vladi started to get sick before we even motored out into the open ocean, where the waves were so high you had to look straight up to see them and the boat rocked to what seemed a good 30 or 40 degrees. Half of us got sick, myself included holding hands with Vladi, both of us bowing over the back of the boat. Mark eventually decided to turn around, saying he’d never seen waves like that around those waters. Two days later, the skies clearer, we were off again. I don’t remember much from the second attempt since I knocked myself out with two Dramamine, but we made it. After a days travel we arrived at a still bay surrounded by tiny Caribbean desert islands where Mark’s other baby was anchored: a Louisiana shrimping boat called the Old School, made in the same town as Bubba Gump Shrimp. We spent two beautiful days swimming, snorkeling, exploring a fraction of the 300 some tiny islands of white sand and coconut trees that make up San Blas, pot lucking with the international sail boat community, and visiting an indigenous Kuna village while our Mormon hosts went to Sunday mass. Each night we slept on the deck of the Old School under a blanket of stars. We then traveled for 36 hours straight towards Cartagena . It was ocean ocean ocean. Waves waves and more waves. Every possible shade of blue. No land in sight. While I watched the stars that night while almost every else snoozed away, I spotted another boat moving along the eastern horizon, lapping our small sail boat easily, and I thought of how dead on is the cliché, like two ships passing in the night. The next morning when we awoke land was visible! Colombia! On our way in Mark caught a small tuna fish, which he cleaned and cut me some pieces around the belly, which was, with a bit of soy sauce, the best sashimi I have ever tasted. When we pulled into the dock, a cosmopolitan city larger than Panama City was visible behind the huge fortress of Old Cartagena. A young Colombian man in a small fishing boat yelled to us in Spanish "Bienvenidos al pais de la coca!"; we had arrived at last.
Cartagena is a truly beautiful, old fashioned and romantic city, enclosed by the same walls long ago used to protect the Spanish gold stolen from the Indigenous population of the Americas from the royal crown supported English pirates. The gold booty was emptied from its storage place three times. Today international tourists and affluent Colombians rub shoulders within the walls confines. Vladi and I stayed at a simple, comfortable room a few blocks outside the walls, and we ventured into the real center of this expanding and impoverished urban jungle, which is needless to say, far outside the walls of Old Cartagena. We spent four nights in this charming city of contrasts, and after our long boat journey, we enjoyed a bit of privacy, the stability of firm land and a real bathroom, but of course, as the traveling inertia overtook us, we were soon off to Venezuela .
From Cartagena , which lies on the northern Caribbean cost of Colombia , we traveled to the border town of Maicao , crossed the border and caught a ride in a shared taxi to Maracaibo , a huge Venezuelan city on the northern tip of Lake Maracaibo . Our fellow taxi passengers included a Colombian woman residing in Maracaibo and a Venezuelan man, both strong supporters of Chavez and very talkative. The chatted us up the whole two hours about Chavez’ health programs, the price of gas (it costs less than water!), the jobs in Venezuela and migrating between their homes and Colombia . We dropped them both off on the way and arrived at the bus terminal. We were in Maracaibo less than two hours, but two hours too long because the heat was unbearable, and that was the last time I felt the Caribbean sun on my shoulders. We climbed aboard a small bus and climbed the mountains into the Sierra Nevada and reached the crisp air mountain town of Merida. We walked around, saw a student art exposition, witnessed Chavez’ re-election and the after party reminiscent of Nicaragua , and enjoyed strolling around town during the sunny afternoons, breathing the crisp mountain air. Until that is, I checked my on-line banking and saw that all our travel funds in that account save $4 had been spent in Caracas. I freaked out, calmed down enough to call the bank and made the report. After all the drama had passed, Vladi and I tried to figure out what to do. We decided to head straight to Bogotá, were Vladi has friends he met when they came to Mexico to work with the Zapatistas back in 2001 when they marched into the capital.
We arrived to Bogotá after traveling a good three days, the last 20 hours straight from Cucuta , a large, urban border town on the Colombian side. We awoke on the bus to a view of green foothills, mountains dominating the backdrop, and stopped for our first Colombian mountain breakfast of caldo de hueso con arepa. When we arrived at the northern entrance to Bogotá we saw the urban sprawl, got off the bus and hopped on a TransMilenio, the newest public transportation project in the city. We got off closer to the center of town and rang the apartment in hopes of crashing out, but with no luck. It was Friday, the part of the city we were waiting in was deserted. After hauling our packs to a coffee shop and almost sleeping on the counter in between running out in the rain to call, we finally got through and took a taxi to their flat. It turned out that it was a long weekend and Hector and Monica were crashed out all day after a late dinner with friends. They welcomed us to their home with open arms.
The first couple of days we walked around our hosts’ cute neighborhood and the center of town, which was decked out for Christmas with a huge plastic castle in the middle of Plaza Bolivar. The cold that kept my hands dug deep in my pockets, the crisp mountain air and all the Christmas hustle and bustle of the city made me feel like the holidays were coming on for the first time after a month of plastic Santa Claus’ on Caribbean beaches. Bogota is a beautiful city of brick buildings and green public parks. The avenue that runs from the apartment where we stayed to the center of town closes every Sunday and holidays to allow pedestrians, bikers, skateboarders and inline skaters free rein. We went to the semi-final soccer match Millos de Bogotá vs. Cucuta, where crowds of Rolos (Bogotanos) cheered their team to victory against the team that later became first time champions of Colombia’s professional league (in fact, that same season, Cucuta was elevated from the second division and the coach is now leading the national team to South America’s World Cup). We visited the National University and strolled between the mural covered academic buildings, drank chicha in an old artsy neighborhood la Candelaria , hang out at the apartment and cooked, played Risk and watched home delivered pirated VHS movies (including the Colombian movies La gente del Universal, La vendedora de rosas, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Babel). Most of the time we hang out with Hector and Monica's crew, chatting, debating and drinking til morning. After much indecision thanks to the endless sites Colombia has to offer, we decided to spend Christmas in a small town of Barichara with Jorge, an old friend of Hector’s.
Barichara is in the state of Santander , we had to back track towards Cucuta to reach the magical town which is just like a small Taxco . The houses in town, including the beautiful property we stayed in, are made of terra cotta and are fresh and cool during the hot afternoons, and warm during the chilly evenings. The owner of the property was a painter who displayed a large portrait of himself, his torso coming out of a log in a lush green forest; we called him Pacho Mamo (Father Earth) and attributed him to our fortunes and misgivings. On Christmas Eve, the five of us together cooked a sancocho, a yummy traditional stew of yucca, potatoes, chicken, pork ribs and chorizo. That evening we went down into the town square, which was full of families, including Paola, Bill and Kai from Panama! We caught up, introduced everyone and chatted the night away on the steps of the nativity scene, the baby Christ freshly planted in his trough bed. The next day we lunched together and made a Spanish tortilla and broccoli salad, and the three of them were off to Bogota. One day we followed Simon Bolivar’s footprints along the Path of the Liberators to the small town of Guane , where we tried the towns specialty of roasted goat, yum! We spent an especially hot day at a public pool right behind an old mission. We ended up spending New Years in the same town square, dancing to the carranga band Aires de Barichara, watching the fireworks and blazing Año Viejo effigies all night long and finally the sunrise. After a days recovering we packed up, said our goodbyes and thank yous to Jorge and were off to San Gil, where we spent a day at the river before boarding the bus back to Bogotá. Once back in the city, we rushed to get everything ready for our long overdue departure.
We got money changed, solicited Vladi's visa for Ecuador and contacted the farm we will volunteer at in Ecuador. We saw the museums we hadn't seen including the Donacion Botero, who is Colombia’s most famous artist known for his fat subjects: people, horses and fruit. We also went to the Gold Museum, whose displays of ancient gold artifacts reminded me of Portobelo and Cartagena, where all the gold that wasn't spared was melted down for Isabel, Elizabeth or the Vatican, the real gangsters of the indigenous populations of the Americas. We went dancing a few more times, once with Daniel from Switzerland, who we ran into on the streets of Bogota! Finally we made maki sushi for our send off, which was, of course, a big hit with everyone. We finally said our teary eyed goodbyes, after spending nearly six weeks together we had bonded like family. I can't wait to see those two again, in Mexico or wherever.
Muchisimas gracias Hector y Monica! Ojala que nuestros caminos se cruzen de nuevo, y que sus pasos sigan con suerte y buena vibra en donde esten. Les queremos mucho; un abrazote.