Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Utterly Peaceful Moorlands

Otherwise known as the Páramo de Sumapaz, a vast stretch of high-altitude moors, marshlands, mountains, and lagoons.  I met up with a group of travelers and ex-pats and we went on a guided tour/forced march up and down the mountains, through the bog, marveling at the strange flora, mainly the frailejon, a stumpy little cactusy thing with fuzzy flowers shooting out from in all directions, and keeping an eye out for the alleged spectacled bear that inhabits the Páramo.  Of course my camera died right before we got to the good scenery, the otherworldly canyons and deep, dark lagoons and whatnot, so this is the one photo I got:

Like a fool I showed up in tiny shorts, not realizing that we were in for six hours of being blasted by wind, rain, and hungry clouds, so our cool guide Hernán lent me his long pants... and his wooly Andes hat.... and his raincoat.  

My other recent big tourist foray was to the Gold Museum, which was fascinating both for the wide range of shiny objects as well as the anthropological look at ancient indigenous cultures of the area. I learned so many new Spanish words, like cacique and murciélago.  And, man, those ancient chieftains were obsessed with jaguars, and with turning themselves into birds.  So many tiny gold figurines of jaguar-men and bird-women, it was great.  There were ceremonies where the chieftain of a tribe would take a raft out into the middle of a lake with all his high priests, and then he'd just toss gold and emeralds overboard as an offering to the gods.  All in all, the Gold Museum made me very excited about humankind, with its thousands of years of imagination and weird artwork.  

I haven't had much time to knit since I got here, though I have a friend who sells macrame and sometimes I'll hang out and knit with him.  Knitting seems to be a pretty common pastime down here, and you'll see women working at kiosks just hanging out knitting scarves to pass the time.  So I was shocked at how it seemed like nobody had ever seen double pointed needles before.  I'm working on a pair of fingerless mittens on super-fancy yarn - part wool, part spun bamboo, and if I had my way I would never knit with anything else - that will have an owl pattern on them.  (The cabled owl pattern is my new favorite thing... it's deceptively simple to knit, and it's very impressive looking at the end.)  

Moreover, after two weeks of exploring Bogotá with a vague craving for new yarn but unable to find any yarn retailers, I finally found the secret street where they hide all the yarn and textile shops.  Bogotá has this weird way (and I'm assured it's like this all through South America,) of putting all the stores of a certain caliber in one district.  So you have the hardware district, the bookshop district, the nightclub district, the haberdasherie district, et cetera.  It's very frustrating, and also strikes me as bad for business, if you specifically set up your shop on the same street as twenty competitors.  But anyway, I bought three skeins of yarn, with which I am planning on knitting a tiny coat.  TINY!  Tiny things are much cuter than big things - it's a well-known fact.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Now that I've had a good ten days to get used to the city, I can say for sure that I'm having a great time.  But man, let me tell you, Bogotá is HUGE.  I climbed to the top of a tall hill and thought it was pretty impressive, seeing all the city spread out all across the valley and climbing up the sides of the nearby mountains.  But then I took a taxi out of the city center to help a girl I met in the hostel go get a tattoo, and we drove along mountain after hill after pastoral scene after mountain, and still there was more and more Bogotá, buildings beyond buildings disappearing off into a haze all the way to the horizon.  I'd read that, except for New York City and Mexico City, Bogotá is the largest city in the Americas, at 7.3 million inhabitants, but it's still crazy trying to get my head around it.

I've been doing my best to balance out being an active, energetic tourist with just lounging and eating in cafes and the like, and I think I've been doing a pretty good job.  Dodging trucks, motorcycles, and potholes, I've walked miles around La Candelaria, the arty, colonial-era section of bars, cafes, hostels, and museums that's swarming with youths and backpackers and the like.  And I feel like Bogotá has a lot of energy, and a lot of potential.  While there is a lot of poverty, I have not felt unsafe walking around by myself in the downtown area (although some of the dark, narrow streets, especially up in El Chorro, Bogotá's answer to Dublin's Temple Bar, could stand to have a few streetlamps.)  Maybe a small bit, but nothing compared to walking around after dark in Baltimore.  But there is a huge, city-wide campaign to modernize, posters and billboards urging people to keep the city clean and whatnot; you see policemen everywhere with their giant police dogs in Hannibal Lecter masks, and I hear that they've made immense progress with the drug problem over the past 20 years.

I've hit up a handful of the most crucial landmarks, mainly Plaza Bolivar, Simon Bolivar's country-house, and the Museo Botero.  Below is Plaza Bolivar, which is generally where lots of vendors hang out with llamas for tourists to take pictures of, selling caramelized coconut wedges (my new favorite thing!) and bags of corn to feed pigeons.  If it looks cold and overcast in the picture, that's because it is.

While most beige, pigeon-infested, cathedral-lined plazas resemble each other (and the same goes for the country-houses of languishing, consumptive revolutionaries,) I found the Museo Botero to be weird and thrilling, and I could have stayed there for hours.  Fernando Botero is a painter from Medellín whose glory is painting these great, big fat people with tiny, squished faces.  Recently he's done series of paintings dealing with violent themes, like the Colombia drug cartels and Abu Ghraib, but he's best known for his vibrant, exaggerated portraits in bright, bold colors.  He especially seems to love painting people dancing, and also massive, naked women with impossibly melancholy faces.

[Woman in Front of a Window, Fernando Botero]

I seriously could look at these forever, I think because they're so different from my drawing style.  I draw skinny people with large eyes and mouths, so I find Botero's enormous and perpetually sad people to be mesmerizing.  There is apparently an even bigger Botero collection in Medellín, and I'll definitely have to take a look while I'm there, if I can manage to pull myself together and change my flight ticket soon.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

First Impressions

As we flew over the Colombian countryside, the clouds were so low over the mountains that it seemed like the country was a vast, green cauldron with white smoke spilling out of it.  After too many hours spent in customs and the queue to exchange money, I caught a cab to my hostel and then immediately fell asleep for sixteen hours.  Lisa and her friend LJ arrived late on a bus from Medellín, and by the time we finally ran into each other, there was only enough time for us to lament, eat a hot dog, and see Lisa off on her bus to the airport, there to catch a flight back to Dublin.  It was a sad occasion.

But at least we did get a small bit of wandering in, as well as ogling of Bogotá's stunning street art.

Traffic in Bogotá is sheer chaos, with horns blaring and trucks accelerating into traffic jams and buses weaving in and out of lanes and absolutely no thought of turn signals.  Plus, whichever way you turn, there's always at least a dozen motorbikes waiting to mow you down at the crossroads.  Taking the bus to the airport with LJ the next day was something like riding a roller-coaster, only without seat belts.  They also don't seem to take much notice of the pedestrian, and even buses seem to never come to a complete stop.  I tried to flag one down to head back to La Candelaria but it just kept driving, so I had to run after it and make a flying leap in through the open doors.  The driver was completely unfazed, so I'm assuming that's the way things are done here.

Furthermore, all the Colombians I've talked with have been just about the friendliest people ever.  My cab driver from the airport on my first day gave me a tour of every landmark we passed, and she was a very good sport with my attempts to speak Spanish with her.  A police officer walked me halfway across the airport, past a parking lot, and through a construction site to help me find the place where I could get a yellow fever vaccination.  When I went to buy a phone, the sales clerks at the shop wouldn't let me go without writing down a list of sites for me to visit.

The city center is dirty and beat up, which reminds me a lot of living in Moscow, but it seems no more dangerous than any other big city I've visited, and much safer than Baltimore.  Everything is colorful and loud, and everyone seems thrilled to be here, especially after dark when all of downtown seems to explode into a melee of music and dancing.  The only aspect I dislike is the weather; I'd packed solely for tropics and didn't bring a single sweater or pair of mittens, and I come to find that the weather in Bogotá is cool and breezy all year round.  Unfair, I say!  Simon Bolivar said that he loved no climate better than Bogotá's, because it reminds him of southeastern Scandinavia, and the air is crisp and clean due to the altitude.  I wouldn't exactly say the air is clean anymore, but the altitude makes it very dry, and very close to the sun.  I discovered, after exploring the city all day and being cold for most of it, that I had gotten pretty sunburned without realizing how.

Otherwise, my plan is to stay here from anywhere between two weeks and a month, depending on how things go.  Medellín wasn't originally on my itinerary, but I've heard good things so I may have to go check it out for a week or so.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Introduction: Part Deux

And now, since traveling across South America doesn't seem to be enough of a gimmick for a blog, I've decided to incorporate my other great love: knitting.  At the risk of boring the pants off everyone who is not a knitter, I will briefly explain how I got into the fiber arts.  In high school, the girl who I'll be meeting in Ecuador come August, came to the library (our cool hang-out spot) wearing a scarf she'd knitted herself.  In a burst of, "If you can knit a thing, then darn it, so can I!" I taught myself from a book, made an ugly scarf, and then immediately lost interest because I couldn't figure out how to knit anything other than garter stitch.

I next picked up a pair of needles five years later, when I was living on a commune in central Finland.  When one lives on a commune in central Finland in the middle of winter and one has no interest in drum circles, there are three activities one has at one's disposal: learning how to ski out on the frozen lake, reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and knitting.  I already had a scarf, so instead I knitted two rectangles and stitched them up the sides, leaving a hole in the seam for my thumb to poke out.  Also, around this time I also figured out how to purl, and was able to knit the lovely, flowing stockinette stitch.  I had finally created garments.  I was incredibly pleased with myself.

The third part of my evolution as a knitter came about last winter when, battling another round of restlessness and cabin fever, waiting for a trip to Colombia that seemed ages away, I picked up a pattern for the Lore Hoodie from Vampire Knits, and knitted frenetically.  I was surprised at how easy it was, and at how fancy it looked by the end despite the proportions being all wonky due to me mixing up the measurements and using the wrong sized needles.

Knitting something that I could actually wear and twirl around in was such a rush that I've been a knitting junkie since then, and have spent far too much money on knitting needles and fancy yarns and excursions to the Sheep and Wool Festival in Harford County, the whole shebang.  Fingerless gloves are my specialty, but I've also knitted cowls, hats, an unfinished raglan sweater, and a tiny dress for my friends' wonderful baby.  

Currently, I'm working on knitting a seamless dress, which at the moment looks like this:

This is the third time this has happened to me, and yet somehow I've only just realized that this is why in the movies knitting grannies wind up their yarn balls from untwisted skeins of yarn that they have people hold out on their hands, cat's cradle style.  These people are usually then rewarded with freshly baked cookies.  That's something to keep in mind as I'm traveling.


The situation is this:

For the past nine months I've been trapped in Baltimore, Maryland, of "The Wire" fame, a city which Lonely Planet tactfully describes as, "A lot of cities try to be hip, stylish, on top of the trends.  Baltimore says screw that."  I've devoted a third of my life to escaping my homeplace, and have lived in Ireland, Russia, and Finland, as well as the not-quite-so-exciting Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.  Two summers ago I lived in Galway, a smallish city on the west coast of Ireland, with two other girls in a leaky, dysfunctional, amazing townhouse with big windows and velvet curtains (we swore it used to be a turn-of-the-century bordello,) down by the docks.  In the common room there was an enormous map of the world plastered up over the wall, and we used it to plot out grandiose trips through South America.  

I'd assumed this was just us burning time before going to the pub (there are approximately four trillion pubs in Galway,) but around last November my one housemate went ahead and bought a ticket to Buenos Aires.  She quickly finagled me into meeting her in Bogotá, Colombia at such and such a date—I had recently left Ireland for the sixth time in six years and was distraught enough to swear an oath of no more traveling FOREVER, but $180 for a one-way ticket was too much to pass up—and that date, after nine months of having nothing to do but knit and languish, is tomorrow.

I have no itinerary as such, being as whenever I make plans they usually get derailed, aside from a chain of plane tickets from Bogotá to Cartagena, and from Cartagena to Quito, Ecuador.  But my current goal is to work my way down the continent, retracing Lisa's trip backwards, to Buenos Aires and then, bank account willing, fly back to the States for a friend's wedding in February.  Other goals include buying a leather jacket, exploring Cuenca and going on nature hikes with my age-old friend from high school who will be getting her ESL certification in Ecuador, visiting Machu Picchu, riding the funicular in Valparaíso, wandering through El Ateneo bookshop in Buenos Aires, and learning how to tango.

After saving up for a year and securing a few freelance jobs, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to prolong this trip, if not indefinitely, at least long enough for me to learn Spanish well enough to finish reading Eva Luna untranslated.  (I've gotten 80 pages into it over the past year, and I have a notebook full of vocabulary words, many of which I even remember.)  This blog comes in as an exercise in writing, which I need to become more disciplined in doing often and less paranoid about doing perfectly.  That and I want to use this year to find more freelance jobs, and everything I've read says to be successful at that sort of thing, you HAVE TO HAVE A BLOG.  So there you have it.  We shall see how this whole thing goes.