Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A great stepping stone back to home

New York, USA: 6 - 12 Dec. 2010

My transition back to the wintery developped world was helped by the facts that in places Colombia is very modern (certainly a big step up from Peru) and that, away from the hot Caribbean coast, the climate in November and December is relatively cool. Even so, once I got passed an incredulous US customs official ("You've been travelling for 15 months?!"), I felt a bit out of place during my stop-over in Orlando airport given its cleanliness and facilities, especially toliets where you can flush the toilet paper!

From there I flew onto New York, where I was joined the next day by Aileen and Nicole. We had the perfect week, which had the nice mix of seeing and doing a lot during the day without pushing it too much (like ice-skating in Central Park), and then in the evenings enjoying some lovely meals out, followed by nighttime walks to soak up the Christmas atmosphere (like seeing the tree in front of the Rockerfeller building).From getting the morning boat to Ellis Island, having a dim sum lunch in Chinatown, going to the top of the Empire State Building, to seeing "Wicked" on Broadway, it was a fantastic week.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The art of travelling in rainy Colombia

Palomino, Tayrona, Cartagena, Medellin, Manizales, Salento, Valle de Leyva, Bogota, COLOMBIA: 17 Nov. - 6 Dec. 2010

I had generally done quite well in avoiding being in countries during their rainy seasons, but I ended my travels in South America by being in Colombia during their worst rains in nearly 40 years.But it wasn't too bad; it just meant that we visited a fair few museums and art galleries (I especially liked this painting in Medellin by Fernando Botero about the death of the other famous man from Medellin - the drug lord Pablo Escobar) and we did some muddy treks. In the end, we decided to embrace the mud by bathing in the mud volcanic pool outside Cartagena - a fun and truely unique experience.During my last few weeks in Colombia, I was reminded of Alain de Botton's book "The Art of Travel". One thing I remember from reading it was his view that guide books' and other people's supposed highlights do not have to be your highlights. While the walled, coastal city of Cartagena certainly lived up to the hype, for me other so-called highlights failed to greatly impress. For instance, while we heard that going to the beach in Tayrona National Park was a "once in a lifetime experience", I much preferred the couple of days we (Ciaran, Elaine and myself) spent at the stunning and deserted beach a little further along the Caribbean coast at Palomino (where we slept in a hut on stilts literally right at the water's edge).
Similarly, for me what made our time in Salento in the Coffee Region so memorable was not the hike to see the famous wax palms, but rather our night out there. We started by drinking in a "wild west" type saloon full of men wearing ponchos and cowboy hats playing cards and billards, and then moved onto another bar where at the back you could play tejo. This game, which is free to play so long as you keep buying drink, is one of the best pub activities I've ever done. We had hours of fun throwing metal disks at a clay-filled target box about 15 metres away which was filled with little packets of gunpowder - there was such a great sense of joyous satisfaction at hitting one of the packets and causing an explosion!Other personal highlights of Colombia, which don't get mentioned in guidebooks, include: going into shops that sell both motorbikes and washing machines; seeing people on the street making calls from "public" mobile phones that are chained onto the vendor (the guy holding the sign, who is standing in Bogota's main plaza, has half a dozen phones chained to his belt - its common to see a bunch of people all making phone calls standing around these guys);and seeing roadside posters calling the army today's heroes of Colombia. The army certainly are all over the country (it was the norm to pass through several army checkpoints on every bus trip). I just thought it was interesting to see them portrayed like movie-heroes.
My time in Colombia was a nice reminder to avoid the trap of blindly following the Lonely Planet or of putting too much faith in other people's recommendations. The fact that we did some of our own things made my time in Colombia a nice end to my Latin American adventures.