Monday, 29 June 2009
In English: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8123126.stm
In Portuguese: http://ultimahora.publico.clix.pt/noticia.aspx?id=1389190&idCanal=11
It looks like I'm loosing the excitment in some of the countries I've been visiting for just a few months.
Hum... better that way, definitely!
Sunday, 28 June 2009
Praticamente há um ano foi assim que te conheci…
Temos muito que contar um ao outro! Provavelmente num português mais bem falado por ti do que por mim, já que embora não me consiga livrar desta pronúncia foleira ao falar espanhol, a fluência na língua materna já começa a falhar…
Amanhã a tua primeira primavera vai estar o tempo todo no meu pensamento, se bem que tens estado no meu coração desde que de Portugal saí.
Até já, Laura linda.
Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=ibagu%C3%A9+colombia&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=4.510714,-75.71228&spn=2.68307,5.603027&z=8
A random stop in the city of Ibagué, just in time for the celebrations of San Juan, and Colombia’s biggest folklore festival. After a concert the night before by Sergio Luis Rodriguez, Colombian’s king of Vallenato, a few good hours spent at a gastronomic fair.
This short stay was yet another opportunity to witness the strength and diversity of Colombian culture: each of the numerous departments in the country has an incredible heritage of colours, sounds and flavours. And after the gastronomic desert of Central America it’s mind blowing what your mouth can taste around here.
Thinking I had no idea about this before I came here…
Dancer from the San Andrés island: when people talk of the beauty of Colombian women they're not exagerating...
Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=deserto+tatacoa&sll=4.614411,-74.114628&sspn=1.341432,2.801514&ie=UTF8&ll=6.025848,-74.558716&spn=2.676537,5.603027&z=8
The Tatacoa desert is a small piece of flat land set in the middle of the central and eastern Andes. Its location in the middle of two large mountain ranges creates the perfect hot and dry conditions for a spectacular landscape.
It’s actually small enough for you to walk around freely, without running the risk of loosing yourself amidst the canyons.
Often, what seems to be a fairly flat and straightforward route quickly becomes sinuous, as you need to move around canyon walls too steep for you to climb up or down, or to avoid sections of the dry rivers where cactuses and bushes grow too closely together for you to cross through. But then you hike up to a small sand terrace a bit higher up, you see where both mountain ranges are, you recognise the astronomy observatory at far, and you know where you are and where to go. Piece of cake, really.
The place is even almost too small to give you the impression of a “real” desert – many of the most interesting geological formations are walking distance from the road that divide the area.
But then you walk for a couple of hours away from the road, you leave the small farms behind, and all that surrounds you is arid landscape and the occasional noise of a small bird or a desert sheep. Yes: small, but still beautiful.
But, what on earth has the title of this post to do with what I’m writing?
Well, I stayed overnight in one of the few desert farms that offer (very) rustic accommodation to travellers along the road. Less than an hour after I arrived there the family who runs the place was hanging a sheep on a tree, bleeding it to death and cutting it in pieces for food to eat and sell. I had it for lunch – tasty! The following morning I woke up at 5am, not from the heat, but from the loud and disturbing screams of a pig also being bled to death, hanging from the same tree the poor sheep the day before. Again, it was cut into pieces and I had it for breakfast. Yet again, it was tasty.
If these two consecutive bloody experiences didn’t stop me from eating the poor animals just few hours after I saw them being cut to pieces, nothing will keep me away from being a meat-lover. It’s just too good.
I saw most of the tourists in my hostel in Bogotá come and go in just a few days. When not playing poker between them, they were watching western channels on TV or just sleeping in a couch, recovering from the party the night before, organised in the hostel by foreigners, for foreigners. Plenty of drugs around, on what is known amongst Colombians as “narcotourism”.
I had seen this before in other popular spots of the gringo-trail – the very well defined (and so limited!) path followed by most foreign tourists, in search of only one of the so many things Colombia has to offer – illicit substances. I saw it in Cartagena, I saw it Taganga… No effort to get to know much of the city that surrounds them. No effort to speak the language. No effort to get to know how Colombians are like, what they write, read or watch. No effort to get to know Colombia, really.
What on earth are you taking home with you?! Did you really come to Colombia?
We are all free to travel the way we like, but, quite bluntly, I think you’re missing the point here…
With the exception of the casual encounters in the hostel in Bogotá, when I went for a shower or must-needed sleep, I don’t think I have seen a foreign tourist for at least 3 weeks. That tells me I’m doing something right here…
Saturday, 27 June 2009
Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=bogot%C3%A1&ie=UTF8&ll=4.614411,-74.114628&spn=1.341432,2.801514&z=9
People say in Colombia that while Costeños (Colombians from the Caribbean) are party-animals and Paisas (Colombians from Antioquia, the Medellín department) are serious entrepreneurs, Cachacos (naturals of Bogotá) are dull. Cachacos dull? Bollocks!
For the first time in LatAm I’ve really liked a big city. And, for the first time since UPAVIM, I was genuinely sad for leaving a place. That says it all...
Bogotá is a huge metropolis – around 8 million souls live there! - and the stories I had heard from Colombians seeking “refuge” in the countryside to move away from the hurly-burly of the capital had made me fear the worse. No way: not only I encountered no problems whatsoever, but I actually truly enjoyed the cosmopolitan vibe of the city, its pleasant wide streets, the urban culture, the nightlife. And, of course, having a group of local friends I had met in El Cocuy showing me the “real Bogotá” made it definitely a special experience.
The streets are fairly clean – cleaner than in Lisbon, I have to say. There are still colonial architecture traits here and there, which remind you the all time this is a city full of history. If not colonial-like, the more modern streets and avenues have a pleasant feel, far away from the tasteless brick-and-mortar chaos of the Central American capitals. There are neighbourhoods full of culture – one where all the theatre happens, another one where it’s all about skateboarding and street art, another one where all the fashion designers showcase their work. Very London-like…
And then, of course, there is the night life. And having local friends showing you around, taking you to places you’d never hear about as a tourist, gives a unique insight into the “cachaca” way of partying.
Having a “botellón” of wine and bread, in the historical plaza where the city of Bogotá was born centuries ago, just before a theatre performance. Dancing salsa, merengue, vallenato and reggaeton in a small club in the middle of nowhere, which is supposed to stay (illegally) open until dawn – “amañecer” as they call it here. “Amañecer” in a house-party instead, as the club would stay open until that late only on the following day. (It was funnier at home any way...)
Having “lechona” (“leitão” in Portuguese – how do you say that in English?) for breakfast. Being invited to dance salsa in a neighbourhood well beyond the city outskirts that ends up being like the “Damaia of Bogotá”, in a club that surprisingly transforms a 2am samba show into a strip-tease gig. (Time to show some tiredness and suggest going home there, as the atmosphere became… hum… a bit heavy…).
Having another “botellón” in “zona rosa”, the posh nightlife area of Bogotá. Dancing for free there, thanks to the sound coming out of the bars around. Buying liquor under-the-counter from street vendors, who try to hide their trade from the police (do they?). Calling the “correo de la noche” in the middle of the night, a home-delivery service that sells drinks when both bottles and throats are dry, but the house-party is still going.
Bogotá by night, or by day – I loved it. Thank you, my friends!
Dissident voices have a bit more room to express themselves in the capital...
What was I saying – not that bad? Giving bad reputation to Portugal here – because of the terrible accent and the poor tolerance to… hum… anis…
Last day in Bogotá, with the old "tejo gang" from Guican (a few posts below) partially reunited. From left to right, Sabrina, Micha (hiking partner in El Cocuy), Juan, Sandra and... me. After postponing my departure for 2 or 3 times, it was time for yet another delay due to the surprise arrival of Micha that morning, who would take a flight to Canada at night. Still time for a chicha (beer-like drink made out of corn) and half a bottle of "aguardiente". "Para o caminho", as we say in Portugal. I slept really well in the bus that night...
I really like the marketing of the most recent campaign by the Colombian tourism office. Its signature is something like: “Forget the country you have in your mind, and discover a new one in your heart. Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay”.
Why do I like it so much? Well, what did I know about Colombia before I came here? Ok, before I talked with a few Colombian friends and people who had travelled here for long, better said, I knew Faustino Asprilla, the lethal striker who used to play for Parma, in Italy. I knew Shakira. And probably the first words that would come to my mind would be cocaine production and trafficking, FARC and kidnappings. Oh! How did the palms of my hands sweat as my flight from Panama City was landing in Medellín: "what terrible dangers are waiting me?", was I thinking.
But, instead, what I’ve been discovering is a big and richly diverse country, full of natural beauty and tasty food, an incredibly strong and fascinating culture, and the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth (not exaggerating here – I wrote about it before…).
It’s very easy to fall in love with Colombia. I have.
However, it’s also easy to fall in love without noticing its dark spots. It’s like the picture of Colombia in your head can rotate 180 degrees – from a deeply negative image shaped by ignorance, to an idyllic representation, romanticised by naïve enchantment.
But, as we say in Portugal, “not everything is like a sea of roses” (I love these forced translations!). It’s easy for you to just read your guide book, talk to a few poorly informed tourists and be amazed at how much the security situation has improved in the country in the last 6 years or so. “Long live the government, whatever it’s doing!”. After all, places like El Cocuy (again, I wrote about it before...), which now start to fill the heart of travellers like myself, were prohibited areas of armed conflict and/or drug trafficking just a few years ago…
But then you have a second look at the chronics in the columns of the more liberal newspapers. You ask a few questions to better informed and well thought-through people (not anyone mentioned or shown in this blog, by the way!). And you start hearing how the paramilitary problem might have been “solved” by just absorbing those elements into the armed forces. You start hearing how there might be unbalanced measures against the guerrillas and the paramilitary. You start hearing about “falsos positivos”, the cases when (supposedly) government-backed illegal armed forces exterminate suspects of rebel activity who are later on proved innocent. You start hearing of anti-constitutional secret investigations on individuals and suppression of freedom. You start hearing international NGOs using the news coming from Iran to bring their case about Colombia to light (quite farfetched comparison, if you ask me!).
But hey, you don’t love someone just for her/his qualities, but also for her/his imperfections. That's the way I feel about Colombia.,.
Having said that, and knowing both sides of the coin, I can’t stop but having a sweet-and-sour taste from my visits to places like El Cocuy…
Today is a national holiday in Colombia. As it was last Monday. And as it will be next Monday. All religious festivities – god bless.
It’s not only in some aspects of food and architecture that Colombia reminds me of Portugal!
Who knows about quality of life? We do…
“Los viajes del viento” (http://www.losviajesdelviento.net/) – a great Colombian movie, recently prized in Cannes.
But it’s not because of the award that I recommend it: it’s just a great piece of art! It gives a glimpse of some of the breathtaking landscapes that have been amazing me in this country – the ones in the movie are in and around the Caribbean coast. It's also an interesting insight into Colombian Caribbean culture.
It has a brilliant music. And at least as good cinematography.
Strongly recommended. Really.
I came to the realisation of an important takeaway from this trip: I’m becoming intransigent about happiness.
Why? I’m now used to doing what I feel like, when I feel like, the way I feel like, with whom I feel like. The all time.
This may come across as an undesirable trait. After all, we all know one of those children – or adults! – who are used to doing what they feel like, when they feel like, the way they feel like, with whom they feel like. And often they aren’t that pleasant, are they? Or happy, for that matter…
But I actually think I’ve been acquiring such intransigence in a value-added way. I mean, I’ve been offering myself the opportunity to try out things I had always wanted to do but never had the chance to. And some other things that I had never thought about, but the pleasure of experiencing them has resulted as fresh and enriching surprises. I’ve been seeing new things, walking new walks, talking new talks, realising the world is a much bigger, more beautiful and interesting place than I had comprehended before.
Do you remember the flying plastic bag scene from the movie American Beauty, and the famous quote: "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it”? Yes, I think it’s a bit about that…
So, one thing I feel the need to is, going forward, to keep looking at things this way. Be it here, in Colombia, elsewhere in Latin America, or back home. To look around me and see too many interesting things to do, and at the same time to feel the days too short to accomplish them. To interiorise that reality, and therefore be intransigent about pursuing what really passions me, instead of loosing time with unsatisfactory compromises and tradeoffs.
I like the word “intransigent”: I think it captures well the inflexibility of the feeling I’m trying to describe. And if such intransigence is put at good use, I think it can loose the negative connotation it’s so often attached to it…
Well, if this is the takeaway, I now need to find out what it means to live it in a sustainable and productive way once back home. But I still have time to figure that one out, don’t I?
Thursday, 18 June 2009
Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=mongui+colombia&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.125&ie=UTF8&ll=5.878332,-73.899536&spn=2.677256,5.603027&z=8&iwloc=A
For the non-Portuguese speakers, the expression “Cada tiro cada melro” means something like “Hitting a bird with every single gunshot”.
That’s the way I feel about small rural villages in Colombia with any sort of colonial architecture heritage: you’re certain to find a peaceful environment, spotlessly clean and beautiful streets, and friendly people. It’s the lady from the small food shop that insists on offering one of the “empanadas”, after spicing up your dinner with stories about the most interesting characters of the village... Or the owner of the “hospedaje” where you’re staying in that insists on offering you a ride to the nearest town the next morning...
I think that’s a significant difference between Colombia and the other Central American countries I’ve been to – there, if you visit a random small rural village you’re likely to find the dustiest of the streets and the most uninteresting and unappealing bricks & mortar architecture; here, you could bet your money you’ll find a colonial gem.
Of course, it helps that the town is somehow know for its history, and what I’m saying probably applies more to the Boyacá department, where I’ve spent the last couple of weeks.
The Heisenberg Principle from Physics, also known as the Uncertainty Principle, states that you cannot have absolute certainty about a particle’s situation: the more you know about its position, the less you’ll be certain about its momentum, or speed. And vice-versa.
One implication of this, and more to the point of this post, is that the simple fact you’re observing a certain phenomenon – a particle, for instance – affects its situation. This is called the Observer's Effect, and it means there is no such thing as perfect, zero-interference observation.
I think the same applies to tourism and places like El Cocuy (see a couple of posts below). That town is genuinely friendly, touched by travellers only enough to make it hospitable and welcoming, without turning itself into a theme park or tourists into walking wallets packed with money.
But the truth is, even if only 2 or 3 tourists at the time, our presence there changes the reality of the locals.
You have “the time of your life” there. You’ve tasty meals for €1. You buy beer at a night club – the only one, for that matter – for €0.33. You spend the all day moving from one place to the other, buying this here, buying that there, and at the end you’re absolutely surprised how cheap it all was.
You’re sensitive, so you don’t splash your money around – you keep it low profile. If people ask how much a plane ticket to your home country costs, you don't tell the truth and say something 25% of the real price (you'd say less if you could, but then they wouldn't believe it either). If people ask about your travels, you omit most of the places and what you’ve been up to.
But still… Just the fact you’re spending a few days in an “hospedaje”, paying the national park’s fee to go up the mountain, renting camping gear, and eating and drinking without any concerns, it means you’re probably spending in a couple of weeks what most of the locals have for a few months of living…
So, if after a night out you’re suspicious someone might have overcharged you a bit on your consumption, whose fault is it – theirs or yours?
Probably no-one’s, probably everyone’s. But I’d just like to go back to the Heisenberg’s Principle for a minute here…
Cocuy National Park. A 6-day hard hike in high mountain, between 4,000 and 5,000 meters, the all time. My first one.
It was an opportunity to learn from experience. Aspirins are handy, for instance. As are flip-flops, despite the cold, so that you can wear something dry to walk at the end of day. You should wear neither jeans nor cotton fabrics, as those suck your heat out when wet – synthetics are much better for that purpose. A proper rafting-like dry-bag is worth gold, instead of less reliable sealable plastic bags. Just to mention a few…
It was also an opportunity to stretch my comfort zone...
At the beginning it was the fear of getting lost at some point in the trek. But then you start getting confident about it – even if on occasions there are no rock signs to follow, the map, your instinct and your more experienced hiking companion (Micha, my partner on the trek, had a few previous high-altitude mountaineering experiences under his belt) do the job.
But then you get terrible weather – light but steady rain for hours, followed by more intense horizontal rain and snow, brought by freezing wind close to a high-mountain passage – that sucks the heat out of your body through your wet clothes, leaves you shaking, and forces you to camp sooner than planned.
Then the weather gets clearer, you no longer think of going back to the starting point and start enjoying the walk again. But then the effects of altitude start kicking in, you feel tired, you feel you’re not getting as much oxygen in your muscles as you’d like to, the high-mountain passages seem to become steeper and steeper, and you cannot believe you’ve only made less than one third of them.
Then you get back to your old self, as your body gradually gets used to the altitude, and your blood runs thinner, much with the help of the aspirins. But then the weather gets worse again and you’re afraid of freezing again too. You’re afraid of not getting the direction right amidst the fog. You’re afraid that the knee you hurt the day before starts slowing you down.
But then the rain just comes and goes, and you’re not as wet as you feared. Your knee hangs in there, you’re walking faster than ever before and you get yourself out of the mountain range after 5 long days of hard walking, and see the first sign of human presence – a small farm in the valley at far.
You feel deep tiredness, relief and happiness that you conquered your fears and overcame everything with no incidents, but also some sadness that all that beauty is behind you.
After all, it was also an opportunity for some of the landscapes of my life…
Micha in a "milk truck". That's the only means of transportation that gets you to the beginning of the high-altitude mountain range. Several milk trucks navigate the hills and valleys between 2,500 and 3,500 meters to collect the milk from several widespread farms. We left Cocuy at 6.30am and arrived at the drop off point (Hacienda Rita Cuba) only around 10.30am. A long, bumpy and smelly ride. Have you ever smelled 1 cubic meter of fresh-from-the-cow milk?
We must have stopped over 50 times, often to get as little as 5 litres at a time. A lot of potential for optimisation here, consultant!
=== DAY 2 ===
=== DAY 3 ===
=== Day 5 ===
=== Day 6 ===