Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back in the Andes

Quito: I've been here nine days and don't think too much of it.  To be fair, I've been working tons and planning out/writing drafts of my first week of posts for my new blog, and haven't had much time or inclination to explore Quito given how on my first day I went to a public park and in broad daylight this sketchy old guy tried to snatch my purse.  And then twenty minutes later a sketchy young guy tried to get me to "donate" money to his "help the disabled children charity."

But there are some pretty aspects of Quito I've seen in my wanderings.  Here are some of them:

Poor Quito.  It just exudes sketchiness, and the people aren't particularly friendly enough to give it any sort of charm.  (I say this, of course, having been completely spoiled by the enormous charm and friendliness of virtually everybody in Colombia.)  But the people are amazing to watch, though.  Little old ladies no higher than four feet high, charging up these mountainous streets with giant bundles on their backs as big as themselves.  Women in shawls and fedoras with tiny peacock feathers in the brims - fedoras seem to be fashionable for women here.  People walking down the street holding a big lump of blankets like a sack of potatoes, at the center of which somewhere there is a baby.

Moreover, I am loving the prices here.  Breakfast every day are two gorgeous fritatas, a fried egg with aji salsa, a cup of juice, and a mug of coffee - this costs $1.25 USD, and it is filling and delicious.  You can buy single eggs from vendors from 10 cents, and then a bag of vegetables for guacamole for 50 cents.  I am pretty much living like a king here... a lonely, transcribing king who rents a tiny room and eats a lot of fried eggs and guacamole.

Furthermore, 25 cents got me a ticket for the MetroBus, with which I made a lengthy sojourn to the Mitad del Mundo, a very charming tourist trap located an hour out of the city at 0' 0" 0".  Here is the required picture of me with one foot in the Northern hemisphere and one foot in the Southern:

After that I bought a doll from one of the eighty identical artisan shops, checked out creepy bugs at the insectarium, (Hercules beetles and tarantulas!) and then headed back to Quito to catch a Cuban film festival.  The movie I watched was called Lucía, by Humberto Solás, a very arty film full of intense black and white close-ups and sweaty people having passionate nervous breakdowns.  It followed the lives of three women named Lucía through three ages of Cuban revolutions, and I would have found all 159 minutes of it less exhausting if I'd been able to understand anything anyone was saying.  Either my Spanish is worse than I thought, or Cubans just speak incredibly fast.

Otherwise, I actually found the movie on YouTube if anyone's curious:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cartagena, La Heroica!

Whew!  I have been amazingly busy these past two weeks or so, and updates have had to go on a back-burner for a bit.  I've been accepted for a job writing posts for a language blog, and being as languages are some of my favorite things, this is very exciting stuff!  Plus, I've been in Cartagena, Colombia's coastal city on the Caribbean Sea, and trying to enjoy it to the utmost, which I think I did a pretty good job at.

First of all, I did finish my red sweater on my last day in Medellín, but I lost interest halfway through and wasn't too thrilled at the result.  The pattern was great, but the yarn was just lackluster, and Medellín was too warm for sweaters anyway.

In the end, I left the sweater behind because it wouldn't fit in my backpack.  I took the bus to Cartagena, which took roughly 18 hours, and as we sped through the dark I deliriously watched house after open-air house speed by, and it seemed that every single one of them had a shrine to the Virgin Mary on the front porch surrounded by dozens of tea candles.  The entire family of each house was sitting around their shrines on lawn chairs, making me wonder if there was some sort of religious holiday going on, or if that was just what people do at nighttime in rural Cartagena.

The weather in the city was sweltering and humid, just the way I like it, and it stayed that way all week.  This, of course, drove me to the beach almost every day.  The beach at Bocagrande was nothing special - although I did get attack-massaged by a wandering beach masseuse, who grabbed my foot while I was in the middle of telling her off and practically yanked me off my towel.  My response to this went something like, "Now, wait just a second, what do you - oh, wait, that feels pretty good.  Carry on..."  The real tropical paradise was at Playa Blanca: white sands, aquamarine waves, palm trees, the whole shebang.  Used to swimming in the freezing, grey Atlantic at Ocean City, Maryland, I was pretty thrilled to for the first time ever be able to swim in water that felt like it was bathtub temperature.

(This was actually from a short stop at Islas del Rosario, right around the corner from Pablo Escobar's private island.)  Yes, Playa Blanca was quite cheesy and full of kitschy cabins with palm frond roofs and vendors pushing you to buy their necklaces, seashells, and coco locos... but it was beautiful nonetheless, and I hear if you stay overnight in a cabin you can have the island virtually to yourself once the tourists head back to the mainland.

The rest of my stay at Cartagena involved exploring the city, which is just perfect for walking and biking.  The inner city, that is, everything inside a century-old stone wall (built to protect the city from pirate attacks!) is built like a labyrinth of colonial and republican architecture, kind of a mix of New Orleans and Havana.

Everything was a bit pricey compared to Bogota, but you can buy a fresh coconut for a dollar, and the vendor will hack off the top with a machete and give you a straw to drink the coconut water inside.  The fish there is the most delicious fish in the world - they catch it fresh in the ocean, scale it and dunk it back in the seawater to salt it, and then fry it up right then and there for you.  Also delicious is cebiche, a Peruvian dish of raw seafood - I tried the shrimp, but there's also things like mussels, lobster, and octopus - marinated in lime juice and with finely chopped onions and cilantro.  The girl at the cebicheria who introduced me to this dish was extremely friendly, and also a little bored at work, so I hung out and we had a good, long chat as a rainstorm rolled in from the sea.  She lamented how ever since she had a baby her social life has gone out the window, and then she taught me the word bobo, which is Colombian for "dummy."  There are also friendly women walking around with bowls of mangoes on their heads, who will let you take a picture of them, and ghostly nuns taking sunset strolls along the circumference of the wall.

Most of all, Cartagena was a great place to unwind, relax, drink mojitos, and dance salsa at rooftop hotel parties.  I met a guy who was a dance instructor (so he said, anyway,) who actually managed to instruct me somewhat in the rhythm of salsa, so I'm not quite as abysmal as I was when I first got here.  I think the secret is to not move your shoulders... and also to try hard not to crash into your partner, wherein my difficulty lies.

But alas, I have left Colombia behind, and I miss it dearly.  There was something special about that place, I think.  Everyone was intense and friendly and beautiful, and it's my favorite country I've ever visited except for Ireland.  I'm in Quito now, not too sure what I think of it because I haven't had much time to explore yet.  But time will soon tell....

Monday, July 15, 2013

Medellín is so different from Bogotá it's hard to believe they're actually in the same country.  Medellín is warm ("City of Eternal Spring," they call it,) Medellín is clean, with regularly spaced bins around the city and outskirts for people to throw trash rather than the side of the road, and Medellín is much less hectic.  Drivers have less of a run-you-off-the-road attitude towards pedestrians.  From what I've seen, Medellín is also quieter, though that might be because I'm staying in a very pleasant little suburb, Barrio Laureles, rather than in the center of town.

Medellín is also, with no offense to Bogotá who is gritty and mad and wonderful, much prettier as a whole.  Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín also sprung up in the middle of a mountain range, but here it seems the sun is always out.  There are trees and small parks and water sculptures with little kids splashing around in them and random sculptures and interactive artwork all over the city.  In fact, an edict was passed making it a requirement that every new building in such-and-such a range of the city center include a work of public art, giving all of downtown the feel of a giant, outdoor art museum.  The buildings are all either very creative or very bizarre or both, (the central EPM building was designed to look like a giant tanker ship,) making you feel like you're wandering around in the capital city of some might sci-fi planet.

But Medellín is very proud of its citywide spirit of innovation (it's the first city in Colombia to have a Metro!) and really, I can't get over all the art they have just for the sake of art.  They have interspersed patches of sand in the middle of business districts, with signs urging people to take off their shoes and feel the energy of the earth.  They have jet-powered tide pools where people can just hang out and dunk their feet.  They have bizarre shooting fountains everywhere and little bamboo groves filled with hanging light bulbs and metal flowers that are actually shaped like planets.  They have benches and chairs all over the city that look like they're made of cement but are actually recycled plastic.  

And furthermore..... THEY HAVE THIS!

I am staying with a lovely family - a mother with two daughters and a hyperactive dog - who invited me to the older daughter's birthday party which involved an amazing home-cooked meal of beans, rice, chicharron, and a cake with arequipe.  (I wasn't too keen on arequipe when I first came to Colombia, but it really grows on you.  Pretty much all their dessert pastries are filled with it, and it's delightful on strawberries.)

For a week spent in the city, I didn't exactly get to do all I wanted.  I never got around to the Botero Museum, for one thing.  But there's enough Botero artwork scattered around the city to make up for that.  He is fast becoming my favorite painter of all time, second only to Hieronymus Bosch.

Fernando Botero: he is just a million kinds of genius.  Otherwise, I take the allegedly 13-hour bus-ride (it will actually be more like 16 or 17-hour,) to Cartagena tomorrow.  Onwards!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera

I have arrived starving, exhausted, and somewhat delirious to Medellín, the erstwhile Pablo Escobar's city.  According to Wikitravel, the city stopped  being a hotbed of drug trafficking and kidnapping and became safe for tourists "since his demise in the mid-1990s."  I can only hope that someday my death too will be referred to as "her demise."

Last night for dinner I had an arepa, which is a flat sort of corn pancake, stuffed with pork, cheese, corn, mushrooms, and bits of chicharron and then grilled over an over fire with loads of butter.  It was amazing and delicious and I couldn't finish it all or I might have had a heart attack.

Otherwise, I'm still currently writing articles for WomanScope News Magazine in Baltimore, and my article on Kyoko Mori, the writer in resident at Goucher College in Towson, is up this month:

Now, to figure out how the Metro works here...

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Knitting a sweater and hungry turtles, and Feliz Orgullo, todo el mundo!

So my stay in Bogotá is coming to an end - in one week I'll be flying to Medellín, there to meet up with a friendly Metallica cover band who came for the weekend to play at Rock al Parque.  It's the biggest free music festival on the continent, so I hear.  But anyway, I'll be glad to get away from the city and see some different areas of the country, particularly the warm-weathered areas.  The constant chill has driven me to start knitting a sweater (which, of course makes more sense than going out and buying one... actually my plan is to hold out until Bolivia and then buy a really nice one for cheap, as I was advised by Lisa,) out of the red yarn I bought the other day.  It turned out to be 100% acrylic, and not up to standard for a baby jacket.  I'll just have to wait until Peru and seek out some really nice alpaca wool.  Until then, I'm knitting the Holly cardigan by Mishellee Zaharis, and this is what I've got so far:

My hairpin stitch-markers are way ghetto.  Furthermore, I'm starting to wish I had a hobby that wasn't so time-consuming.  But there you have it - it'll keep me occupied on the flight to Medellín, and then on the bus-ride from there to Cartagena, which takes 13 hours, apparently.

Other interesting things lately have included an excursion to the Botanical Gardens - we went to the rainforest section specifically hoping to see these giant lily pads, so huge that small children can jump up and down on them, but our guide regretfully informed us that they'd  been eaten by turtles - and me accidentally stumbling onto Bogotá Pride in the middle of a huge rainstorm.  It was all joyous, soaking-wet chaos along the entire length of the street leading into Plaza de Bolívar with people wrapped up in rainbow flags and running around with umbrellas and wearing great, sparkly costumes and dancing to random street rumba bands hiding under the awnings.  It was like Christmas and a masquerade and the best block party ever all mashed together, with vendors in raincoats zooming up and down the street with their carts selling beer, aguardiente, sandwiches, roasted corn, tangerine juice, umbrellas, and pretty much anything else you could imagine.  My only picture, being as it was too rainy and hectic to get anything else:

But it was my very first Pride (I always seem to miss them, being as June is traditionally my month for traveling,) and was thrilling.  It seemed to be a real family event, too - I saw some parents bringing their small children out, and there were a few grandparents dancing salsa in the street and having a grand time.  Colombia has legalized same-sex domestic partnerships and civil unions, despite Church and conservative grumbling, which I thought was surprising for a developing country.  Colombia is just a surprising place in general.  I'm already feeling like I wouldn't mind living here long-term - which for me means maybe three months or so - but first I will have to check out the rest of South America.