Friday, February 22, 2013

Back. Less exotic but colder.

It has been two weeks since I arrived, bleary eyed, in Miami from Bogota.  After some wonderful time with family, I'm now in frigid Canada, one week in to studying for the bar.  Just in case you were curious, "never stop learning" is good life advice but "never stop taking bar exams" is bad life advice.

First stop when I got back to North America: sunny Florida.  A reminder that winter up here won't last forever... I hope?
I had my complaints about my pre-bar-study life, but I see now how good I had it.  My days were my own.  Long, meandering walks; reading in coffee shops; running errands without care (oh, you need me to come back seven times in three days while you repair my camera? Ok!); marvelling at modern technology. . .

Potable water.  For free.  For your water bottle.  Thank you, Charlotte airport!

While I was in South America, I spoke Spanish all the time (a plus), and met new people with ease, and was not freezing cold.  Not that the studying life is without its highlights.  I spend a lot of time wondering about how life is getting on in the places I've been.  The owner trying to drum up tourism in Sogamoso, the handicrafts maker with a shop on top of a lookout tower in the Amazon, my Spanish teacher, the family I stayed with in Medellin ... how are they?  And I can do exciting things like exercise (oh hello old friend!) and make saltenas.

Only took two days of cooking to somewhat replicate this delicious, won't-ill-me, 40-cent street food.  
And I will be traveling more later this spring and summer.  A trip TBD (Vietnam? hiking out west?), Alaska, another destination TBD.  Much more interesting posts to come, is what I am saying.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Monkey Bites and Satellites - the Amazon

I am happy to report that I have returned alive from my trip to the Amazon. So... how was it, you ask?

Within Two Hours of Arriving, I Was Bitten By A Monkey

These guys didn't really ask permission before trying to eat my shirt buttons either.

In all, I saw three types of monkeys while I was in the Amazon: black ones from a distance on a jungle hike, the world's smallest species near my cabin, and a handful of small monkeys that basically lived on the property. A novelty at first, I soon began to really dislike the live-in pack. I made the mistake of opening a packet of crackers within their eyesight when I first arrived and they swarmed me immediately. An aggressive one tried to encourage me to give up the goods with a nip at my arm. Fortunately, the bite was through my shirt and no skin was broken. After that, I gave the monkeys wide berth and rued their ingenuity at doing things like getting into the kitchen. Other guests cooed over them like they were pets, but my view was that they were filthy little beasts running all over our cooking utensils and food. Not that I held a grudge.

Creepy Crawlies, On The Other Hand, Mostly Left Me Alone

Ants in the mosquito net was the most serious bug problem I had, thankfully.

The night before I went to Puerto NariƱo, I made the serious error of reading the guide book's "warnings" section for the village. It included talk of whip scorpions, snakes, piranhas, spiders, and the need to avoid the waterfront around dusk when the caimans are most active. Gulp.

For all of my worrying, I kept covered up and watched where I stepped and had no problems.

The Lodge Owner Shoved Three of Us Out Into a Caiman and Piranha- Infested Lake In a Very Leaky Canoe

You'll notice the water shimmering both inside and outside the boat.

One evening, the owner of the cabins where I was staying suggested that two friends and I go for a boat ride. Lovely!, I thought. When I got down to the dock, I saw the owner - a friar - looking on as my friends were laughing and sitting in a half-sunk canoe while bailing water. He turned to me and asked if I knew how to swim. What now? Since he was a man of the church, I wanted to trust that he wouldn't send us to our deaths, but he was serious about us taking that canoe out into the lake with crocodiles and snakes and flesh-eating fish. I got in, not wanting to be that too-serious one, and started bailing as well. Suddenly, the friar announced that he was pushing us offshore! It was a good thing we had three people in the boat. Two of us paddled while the other one continued bailing. We didn't die, or see much wildlife, but I was alright with that.

Pink Dolphins!

My top wish on the Amazon trip was to see the pink river dolphins. Freshwater-dwelling and as intelligent as ever, and pink. One of the lakes near Puerto Narino, where I stayed, is one of the better places for viewing them. Two other tourists and I went out for a morning with a guide, and after spotting several gray dolphin pairs, we saw, from a distance, a pair of pink dolphins. I am still elated. No pictures, though. It turns out the surest way to shoo off a dolphin is to take the camera out and wait for it to reappear.

Fifty Meters From Where They Fish for Pirahnas, Our Guide Suggested We Go For a Swim

After spotting dolphins, we were offered the chance to go piranha fishing. I abstained from the fishing, but my companions wanted to give it a try. After an hour unsuccessfully fishing along the shoreline with pieces of chicken as bait, our guide suggested a swim. I was thinking no for any number of reasons, piranhas not least of all, but one guy was game. So we motored about 50 meters into the middle of the lake, and he jumped right in. An experience, to be sure, but not one I regret skipping.

Even The Remotest Villages I Saw Had DirecTV

One thing was abundantly clear on my trip to the jungle: 80 km by boat from the nearest airport is not far enough to get really into it. That is how far Puerto Narino is from Leticia, the frontier town. Yes, we had intermittent electricity, lots of farming and fishing by hand, and my "shower" was a PVC pipe coming out of the rainwater cistern. But there were more than a few satellite dishes by the houses, many of which in town were quite nicely landscaped. There was even an Internet cafe. When I walked an hour through the jungle to a neighboring community, the settlement there was poorer but still, there was DirecTV. I greatly enjoyed the chance to spend some time seeing life in the Amazon, but it was not quite the virgin jungle experience I thought I might encounter. To achieve that, I don't know how far away from the Amazon river you have to go, but I am guessing quite far. Surpringly, I now would like to do that and explore more. This is something I wasn't expecting when I started out.

I Saw The Best and Worst of Tourism

I chose Puerto Narino as my base for the trip in large measure because it is a good example of responsible environmental policies and ecotourism in the area. The indigenous communities work together to protect the animal and plant life in their regular life and while showing tourists around. I used only local guides to try to ensure that my dollars benefited the affected communities.

One day, I went with a guide to his home community. Along the way, he showed me the different edible plants that grow in the forest, as well as the crops cultivated there. At the village, I saw his sister's home, toured the school (and the kids then showed me their community meeting building), and learned a lot about life in the rainforest. All good.

One of the many fruits of the forest.

And then, there was the bad. The guide asked if I would like to see a "caiman reserve" nearby. Sure, I said, even though it cost extra. This "reserve" turned out to be a tiny pit in a family's backyard where they kept too many caimans for the space. They had just captured them from the wild - the tributary's edge was 100 meters away - and showed them off. One of the caimans had laid some eggs and the owner poked a stick near them so the mother would react ... for me. I hated it and tried to not offend my guide or his neighbor when asking to please not bother the animals and whether maybe the pond was too small. This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted not to support.

After Dining On Spanish Frittata Cooked By A Spaniard, I Watched A Chess Match Between A Swedish Cameraman and Slovenian Tourist

The cameraman lost.

The headline really says it all. There isn't a lot of entertainment in the evenings in Puerto Narino, at least when you are staying 20 minutes outside of town. The other guests at the cabins were friendly, though, and we had some good, multicultural times.

So there you have it: an eventful trip topped off by watching the sunset from a lookout tower with the loudest and most numerous bird calls I have ever heard. Not bad for my last night in South America.







Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Valley of the Sun (Sogamoso)

Good morning, readers. Tonight I head to the Amazon. I hope to return sans bites from exotic and feared (by me) insects, but in case I don't, let me tell you about my penultimate major stop in Colombia: the Valley of the Sun. Until the last few years, this area was under FARC control and so few could appreciate its massive lakes, crazy paramo, tall waterfalls, and historic villages. But no more. Tourism here will undoubtedly take off in the near future, and I am glad to have had the chance to see it now.

One of the seven varieties of frajilones we saw. They grow only a centimeter a year!

I stayed in a finca-turned-guesthouse on the outskirts of Sogamoso. The other guests turned out to be excellent people, and we went excursions together daily and chatted in front of the fireplace nightly. Although I passed the massive Laguna de Tota, spent a brief time in the Christmas-color painted village of Mongui, and hiked through venomous-snake infested forest (graciously letting the guide go first) to a 130-meter waterfall, the clear winner was the day hike through the Paramo de Oceta.

Funky rock formation in the paramo.

The hike was surprisingly fun for me despite the flat(ish) terrain. My hiking companions, newlyweds from the UK, were enthusiastic amateur botanists, as was our guide. We spent a lot of time comparing the plants large and small found in the paramo to those in the English countryside. I had little to offer the conversation apart from acting as translator to the best I could, and learning what I could along the way.

Some of the plant life to examine.

In addition, the hike took us through several ecosystems and a handful of natural tunnels up to a lookout over the valley. Exhausting but fun.

I tried to explain the Dr. Seuss-ness of this scenery to our guide, but it was lost in translation.

Entering one of the tunnels.

Hasta la Amazon!


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