OK – let’s backtrack in my story.
After Emy, Lio and I finally ran out of time cavorting on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and I survived my attempted mugging unscathed, I returned to Cartagena. Originally I intended to just stay a couple of nights as I had already spent almost a week there previously.
The old town, Cartagena
My hostel of choice (the Mamallena) was full so we found another in the same street. This one had a totally different vibe to the Mamallena – it was small and charming and run by a lovely family. I opted for the cheapest dorm without air con, but it comprised just one set (or should that be pile) of bunk beds and I ended up having it all to myself for the majority of my stay.
It seemed that the French were in town that week andwhilst it was very sad to finally say goodbye to Lio after some big adventures I was still surrounded by those wicked French accents and gallic humour.
Backstreets of Cartagena
So why did I linger so long in Cartagena?
For the same reason that I lingered in Medellin and Amaga, Cuenca and Santa Marianita. The people that I met. And in Cartagena I got my mojo back.
The place has a laid back Caribbean vibe and it was too hot to go charging about. The food is a bit different, the rum flows freely and the architecture is stunning. The buildings and the people and the lifestyle reminded me very much of Cuba – hot steamy nights and life lived to thumping beats of salsa and rum.
A local fiesta
As I was working at my laptop in the tiny little common area of the hostel a traveller from Poland (Luna) arrived one morning following her five day sail boat from Panama. I greeted her and as I told her that the hostel was like a little family home there was one of those moments when you just know that you will click with someone. And in Cartagena we all just kept clicking.
A couple from South Africa were travelling and were one reason that I didn’t move on – Dirk was an inspiration as he worked away on his laptop and I would often emulate him and work on mine. Many times I wanted to give up and get out in the sunshine but it is a lot easier to work in an ‘office’ environment with others – even if that office constitutes a bean bag or the local coffee shop. Sune, Dirk’s wife also worked too – she was volunteering in the hostel and when she wasn’t cleaning or cooking she was sketching or writing a book.
There was Don Pedro and his wife Celis, Quitto who had hidden talents as a tailor and a frazzled Fin who was sick and was holed up in one of the rooms. There were the guys from Mexico and Argentina and as I have already mentioned, a steady stream of French men, some amazing local dancers and the dashing Danny. I met up again with another incredible Dani – we had originally been friends in Medellin. She and her partner were Argentinian and were heading steadily north, he playing his drums and she making and selling beautiful sandals and bracelets. Another beautiful couple, full of strength, love and generosity I was so happy sat on the street just being with them, doing my best to chat as they plied their wares or jammed with other musicians on a street corner or in a square.
Artisan selling Argentinians
Myself, Luna and Canela from the States hit it off and we formed our little gang of three in which we inspired, encouraged and supported each other. We perched high up on the ancient city walls overlooking the sea and chatted long into the night as the warm breeze swept off the sea or we sat in a line on the doorstep of the hostel, emulating the prostitutes who sat on the doorsteps all along the road opposite. We went into the clubs and pubs and danced until four am, taking lessons in reggaeton from local women – grinding and swirling sandwiched between them and then champeta lessons from the men. We felt the rhythm of life swaying and moving with Danny on the roof terrace and another night we went along to Don Pedro’s birthday party where we salsa’d and shook our stuff in his home with his neighbours and family.
Afro Colombian fruit seller
We shared our dreams and worries and told each other that we were beautiful. None of us wanted our time here to end and we would have deep and meaningful conversations or just sit in contented silence happy to just be. We jumped on the local bus and went to a local beach where we were the only non- Colombians around. We sat in Plaza de la Trinidad at two in the morning drinking rum and coke out of the plastic cups so thoughtfully supplied at the corner shop and one day we sat fully clothed in a rainstorm on the roof terrace for an hour not wanting to interrupt our conversation.
Putting the world to rights on the historic city walls
One night we had a cocktail party at the hostel and Dirk spent a couple of hours making coconut milk for the pina coladas from real coconuts which proved to be a lot harder than the recipes on the internet stated and another night we pulled mattresses onto the roof terrace and opened every door and window when the power cut out and the fans and aircon went off whislt the thermometer climbed above thirty four degrees.
Thanks to these incredible people that I met in Cartagena I FINALLY began to believe in myself. After ten months on the road I knew that I had been right to give up my apartment and my posessions, my job and my car. I was comfortable living in hostels and sharing dorms and food with strangers. I was no longer afraid of the dark or crowds or twisty mountain roads. I would get up and dance in a restaurant when invited and I could find my way back to my hostel all by myself at four in the morning through streets lined with prostitutes and sleeping drug addicts. I could handle a conversation with a stranger or a bus driver in Spanish, I was more than happy visiting a museum or a restaurant alone and I was finally managing to live with events from my past life that I was unable to change.
Drowsy Cartagena at siesta time
Cartagena the second time around was like living in a surreal bubble. Friendships and conversations had an intensity and an urgency yet life was slow in the heat and humidity. None of us felt any desire to move onwards and out of Cartagena but we knew that our visas wouldn’t last for ever. We vowed to keep in touch and to be there for each other.
Feel life. Understand life through feelings, through touching, biting, smelling, seeing. Freedom and energy, limitless joy. Through dance and the heartbeat. The rhythm of life
Our teacher – he understands life through feelings , through touching, biting, smelling, seeing. He explains the world, the life through the original basic instinct to live…. to survive, to go forward and yet dance.
He cannot be the teacher of words. But he was definitely our teacher of life, of dance, of liberty and acceptance:- Luna
After twelve months in South America many things that were once strange to me are now normal. And it is now what should be the normal back in the UK which feels very strange to me.
For instance, last week I landed at Heathrow and I caught the Tube into London. Nobody spoke. Everybody looked at their feet or stared blankly out of the window. There was no music being piped in and everybody had headphones on rather than holding mobiles up and listening to them. It used to drive me nuts when there were eight different tunes playing around me, or a stranger insisted on sitting pressed up against me even though there was stacks of room elsewhere, but with hindsight I prefer the noise and connection with my fellow human beings than this distance which I am now having to readjust to.
transport – Colombian style
After twelve months of not putting toilet paper down the loo it will just seem so wrong to start throwing it down the pan again. Nobody throws anything down the toilet here – the pipes just can’t cope with it. I have worked in hostels and I have had to empty the bins in the toilets daily – in one case I had to take the paper to the compost bin and mix it with the kitchen waste. Honestly, it’s not half so bad as you might think – but I apologise in advance if I come to visit and I forget where I am and you find my paper in your bin.
After twelve months of not using a washing up bowl, but washing the dishes under the running and usually cold water tap it will seem odd to run a sink of hot, bubbly water and not eating off ever so slightly greasy plates.
llama or alpaca? Just like sheep but softer and some of them spit
After twelve months of sleeping in dorms with complete strangers and sometimes having to clamber up into the top bunk bed, it will be odd to have my own room and space again. On one occasion in a hostel in Medellin I woke early and I went to the bathroom. When I returned there was a man in my bed. He had just got in from a wild night out and rather drunk and high on some happy pills he had navigated his way to what he thought was his bed (it had been his bed two weeks previously) and he had passed out. No amount of poking and prodding would wake him so I simply gave up as I had to leave early anyway and I got myself showered and dressed and I checked out.
a bed with a view
After twelve months it will be funny to not see vultures hunched on roof tops and trees just hanging about and waiting for something to die. I don’t know why, but these birds fascinate me – perhaps since I went to see The Jungle Book when I was about seven years old.
hanging around waiting for death
After twelve months of cold showers, showers which stop mid shampoo, showers that gave me an electric shock or one which actually rained sparks down onto me when it burst into flames, I can’t wait to run myself a deep, candlelit bubble bath. Accompanied of course, by a glass of red wine, some soft music and a good book.
evening bath time in the lagoon
After twelve months it will be strange not to jump when I take a saucepan out of a cupboard because giant cockroaches scuttle out, and as for spiders… well they hold no fear for me after these monsters.
one of the bigger specimens
After twelve months of disputing the prices charged in shops, cabs, the bus station and even the Post Office, it will be very odd to simply hand over cash and not question the integrity or the mathematical skills of the vendor. Unlike some travellers I don’t get angry or take it personally when I am targeted and charged ‘gringo prices’. I just question everybody with a raised eyebrow and an ‘are you serious?’ in Spanish which usually does the trick and gets me the correct price.
so fresh, so good and so cheap
After twelve months of drinking tap water, well water, stream water, home made juices off some very unsavoury characters on the street and home made ice creams, let alone eating meats from fly infested street stalls I suspect that I may have a parasite or three. However I have never once had a bout of food poisoning, or a dodgy stomach (apart from those which are self induced and caused by an excess of rum, aguardiente or beer).
street food sold by local women
After twelve months I accept that Health and Safety is not a top priority here – or at least there is no culture of suing organisations. If you trip or fall it is your own look out – people here take responsibility for their own actions. This includes choosing whether or not to wear a seatbelt or a crash helmet – although in reality there is often no choice to be made because there is not usually a functioning seatbelt available or a spare crash helmet.
Health and Safety? There was a safety rope. Of sorts
After twelve months I don’t give it a second thought when I see soldiers, police or security guards carry or even draw their weapons and plenty of people are walking around swinging evil looking machetes or knives. But it doesn’t make me feel any safer to see these guns and I certainly hope that the British forces do not begin to visibly arm themselves on the streets any more than they do at the moment.
it’s not just any old mountain, it’s a volcano
After twelve months I will certainly miss the food opportunities on the buses. At every stop, toll booth or traffic jam they stream on or if they are not allowed to board they tap at the windows and shout out at you. My bus vendor record has been twelve different sales people at one time, jostling in the aisle and shoving past each other to sell their fried plantains, herbal parasite remedies, ice creams and sweets.
colourful personality in the market
After twelve months I will miss the Latino people and I have met people from every country on this continent. Of course I generalise here but they are friendly, warm and generous. They are relaxed and laid back. They are helpful and inquisitive with a wicked sense of humour. They generally have an infectious attitude to and a love for life. And they can dance.
the full lunar eclipse from Colombia
After twelve months I will miss my fellow travellers. You will have already read about some of them in previous blog entries. They are a special tribe of the human race; open minded, non-judgmental and fun. They work hard and play hard. They know the best hostels, the best bus routes and the places to avoid. They will come together to support each other in times of need, they will share cabs and costs, dinners in hostels and even beds in a tight situation. All ages, all nationalities and all classes are out here, adventuring, working and exploring.
After twelve months I will miss South America and my nomadic lifestyle.
a little slice of paradise
This week I am going to give you a break from reading about my travels and I have published my new page about books that I have read whilst travelling.
I love to read about other countries and cultures and especially about places that I am visiting.
Click on the link here to see what I have been reading and maybe get some inspiration for yourself.
I will pick one or two books a month and give you a more indepth insight into what they are about. The list will be updated regularily so do keep an eye on it
If you are reading this message then hopefully you have been diverted to my revamped website. It has a new title – Scarlet Jones Travels – which incorporates the journey and adventures of Scarlet Jones with a feast of new travel features and advice.
The beating heart of the site is still the blog but, given time, I intend to upload many new features and factsheets. Do have a nosey around the site and let me know what you think. You can either comment publically at the end of this blog post or send me your comments via the comment tab.
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Colombia is Colombia! But it’s Colombia!
Both of the above expressions can be heard over and over again, usually accompanied by a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder and a wry smile, and used to excuse or explain away just about anything that needs an excuse or an explanation.
Poor timekeeping, bad driving, any quirk of life that occurs – all are explained away with good humour and an unlimited amount of patience.
The following are not all restricted to Colombia but here they are certainly delivered with a lot of charm and the widest of smiles.
1. The Minute Man (or woman). This is minute as in time rather than teeny tiny people. On every street corner you can find somebody holding up a cracked laminated sign or they have a cardboard notice pronouncing ‘minutos’. Don’t have a cell phone? No problem. Simply use a mobile here and pay for the respective minutes that you have used – and they are cheap. More often than not the phone is tied by a length of string to the other person so you can’t run off with it, but it is the perfect system for people who don’t want to or can’t afford to buy their own mobile. It is also indespensible for travellers who like me still haven’t bothered to purchase a Colombian sim card or for safety reasons would rather not be out and about with a phone.
man on phone – you can just see the string
2. Poor timekeeping: the longer that I spend in Latin America I have come to realise that poor time keeping is not down to rudeness or insensitivity but it is just the attitude of a nation of people who generally live life more slowly and in the moment. This is forced on them to some extent by the bureaucracy and the craziness of the rules (when any rules do exist), the transport systems, the heat and an overall laissaz faire outlook on life. Colombians enjoy the moment. They will not pass a friend in the street without a good gossip and they will stop to pass the time of day with strangers – and if that makes them late for an appointment – well the chances are that if they are meeting with another Colombian then they will have done the same and they will probably both turn up at the same time anyway. So therefore there is no problem.
all the time in the world
3. Bus travel has been described to me by more than one Colombian as an extreme sport. Drivers are recruited on their fearlessness and their ability to keep the accelerator pressed flat to the floor, even when collecting or depositing passengers. Mothers with babies in their arms, twenty school children, crinkly old ladies with a sack of beans over their shoulder or men with boxes of chickens – the bus stops for no one. If you are very lucky there will be a conductor on board who will leap off and give you a not so gentle shove up the arse or take the chickens off you so that you have two hands free, and then the bus will lurch forward again, rolling all the newbies along the aisle. No need to shout ‘move along please’ – the g-force compacts everybody towards the back with little effort, with the already seated passengers holding up willing arms to catch the babies or the beans.
one of the better local buses
4. If bus travel is an extreme sport, then the roads are the adventure playground. Is that a solid double line down the centre? Does it indicate a hazard such as a blind bend or a dangerous corner? Yes, it does, but it is not a warning sign – rather a challenge. Look – a blind bend with a two thousand metre drop down a sheer mountain side – yep – overtake. Even better if you are a bus driver and you can try to overtake a line of long lumbering lorries – on a blind corner – in the mountains – and on the busiest road in the region – it makes the challenge longer and it certainly gets the heart pumping. Bridges under repair with no side safety barriers or carriageways which have been undermined by landslides – those maximum speed signs need to be doubled and then have a zero added to them for that added zing to life.
one of the oh so slow lorries
5. Michelada – This is a beer with attitude. The Colombians drink their beer with additives. Take a beer but first coat the rim of the glass with a hefty amount of lemon juice and salt. Then put a good inch of lemon juice in the glass and more salt before pouring in the beer. This is the standard although I have had a michelada which also contains pepper and chilli – and once one arrived with Worcestershire sauce in it! It’s almost a meal.
6. Arepas are EVERYWHERE and people can’t get enough of them. They are a staple food and probably more important than bread here. They are a sort of thick tortilla made from maize which you can eat cold but are better heated up over the gas flame on a little hot plate. Unfortunately they are served up with every meal – bread, lunch and dinner and I HATE them. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like them as they are so bland and inoffensive but there is something of a vague off-putting smell about them. They come in various flavours but they are all horrible as far as I am concerned – on a par with papaya and sopa de mondongo – diced tripe soup (cow’s stomach). I give them away to people at the next table.
7. The mullet hair style is proudly sported all around the country. Gelled and spiked and a reminder of the eighties men are generally exceedingly well groomed and take amazing time and care over their hair and their clothes. I reckon Latin America has more hairdressers and barbers per head (did you get that pun?) of population than on any other continent. Shaved sides, little mohican stripes and rats tails are combed, groomed and preened in any available shiny surface. I have also spotted a large percentage of the men wearing clear varnish on their fingernails and most take an incredible pride in their physique and appearance. I like this trend.
8. Dogs are dressed up. Dogs wear clothe;, coats, scarves, hair ribbons and slides, booties and dresses. They even have football strips for dogs and like the men, they have a passion for nail varnish – well, to be honest, probably the dogs couldn’t care less but their owners do. In a place where the temperature is melting hot it strikes me as odd to add more layers to an already furry creature – although if they sold strait jackets for dogs I would buy one for the dog which tried to attack me the other week and bit the leg of my shorts.
doggie in a dress
9. Men wearing nail varnish and dogs wearing dresses are all perfectly understandable when you realise that the national obsession is looking good. This is historic and goes back to when the drug barons were the celebrities and dressed to kill (another pun there!). Now, not a man, women child or dog goes out without checking themselves in the mirror three times, full makeup is applied and clothes are always spotless and pressed stiffly to attention. Colombians nearly all sport tooth braces for that amazing smile and many women go under the knife and have cosmetic surgery. Many procedures are available in the poorer areas for free but for those who can’t afford to or would rather not add bits on to their bodies (yes they add on, they never deduct) then you can buy uplifting knickers and jeans with butt enhancing pads built into them.
doggie in a football strip
10. We were travelling in a cab late one night in Medellin when the cabbie blatantly ignored several red lights. Wondering aloud if we would actually make it to our destination in one piece or if we would be taken out by another cab doing the same, our driver explained that in Medellin it is actually legal, or at least tolerated for cars to jump red lights after ten o’clock at night. He explained that no driver wanted to sit around at a junction and run the risk of being robbed or shot and the police have enough to do without mopping up the pieces. So we decided that yes, we would rather take our chances at the junctions in the gapme of ‘Traffic Light Russian Roulette’ than that well known arcade game of ‘Shooting Sitting Ducks’.