Monthly Archives: February 2008

Traveling with the Family Circus

February 4, 2008
Day 859

Crossing the Gap, Day 5

Picture of Italians.

The Italian group.

I spent the morning with the Italians waiting to see if the mysterious plane would show up. The two boys were brothers who had been working around Central America and Colombia for the last two years as street performers. Among their luggage was a unicycle and a lot of material for making jewelery. Their dad was visiting them, so they were traveling around a bit more than usual. The other two were an English woman and her Italian boyfriend, but the poor lady didn't speak any Spanish or Italian and only her boyfriend spoke English, so she was left out of most of their conversations. One of the boys was deathly afraid of flying, and as we were eating breakfast we joked about drugging him like B.A. Barackus.

It was a suspenseful morning, but the airplane indeed landed at about the same time as yesterday. The dad continuously stroked his son's shoulder to reassure him that we wouldn't crash. It was an incredible flight as we started over the Caribbean, then worked our way across the Darien Gap, and finally flew over the Pacific. Most of the land we saw was jungle, but occasionally there was a single house that was certainly there under nefarious circumstances. At the end of the flight, we circled around Panama City, and I was amazed to see all the huge ships, luxurious yachts, and massive skyscrapers of the city. It was a big change from Puerto Obaldia.

Despite our best efforts to convince them that we were not on an international flight, we had to go through customs at the airport. One of the officers let a little air out of the unicycle's tire to make sure nothing was hidden in it, but then his attention was diverted when the drug dog discovered something in one of the Italian boys' backpacks. They were asking me if I had any weed last night, so I was worried they were smuggling it, but then I realized that that made no sense because they wouldn't have asked me for weed if they already had it. The customs official wasn't taking any chances and proceeded to search through every inch of the indicated backpack. He found some bottles of ink, which the Italian figured is what set the dog off (I'm not sure why that would be), but he was more interested in the plastic syringes at the bottom of the pack. The Italian explained that they were only for injecting ink and challenged the officer to puncture his skin with them. The officer wasn't amused, but in the end, he found nothing illegal. A group of gringos with barely any luggage entered behind us, and the rest of my group was allowed to leave without being searched because it was getting too crowded.

When I finished getting settled at a hostel, I was surprised to learn it was Carnaval time. I hadn't planned for it yet because it's usually a few weeks later. I went to the parade with some people from the hostel, but it was nothing special compared with the last two years when I was in Brazil and Argentina. In fact, I was kind of put off when a lot of the people from the parade walked around with soda cans with the tops cut off and asked any white person they could find for money. I found that totally against the spirit of Carnaval. One girl in the crowd even had the nerve to walk right up to me and demand that I buy her a beer because I was rich and she was poor. She was about twice my size, so I doubted she was too poor to eat.

I didn't blame the local people for wanting money from the tourists because tourism and western culture in general had obviously overrun the city. Everywhere I looked, there were hordes of tourists, shopping malls, and American chain restaurants. Certainly this must have jaded even the most resilient Panamanians to some degree. It was good to see economic progress, but not at the expense of local traditions like Carnaval.

The photo album for this entry is here.

The Waiting Game

February 3, 2008
Day 858

Crossing the Gap, Day 4

The day started off smoothly when the immigration office was actually open and I was able to get my passport stamped. The officer needed to make a copy of my passport, so he made a kid go to the back room to turn on the generator, and the gas-powered copy machine functioned properly. The only step left was getting on the plane to Panama City.

I asked everyone with a set of ears about the flight, but still nobody knew anything. The main lady in charge of arranging seats finally told me that it was full and nobody had mysteriously not shown up like she claimed they "always" did yesterday. The problem was she wouldn't even write me down on the list for tomorrow's flight because she was too busy trying to figure out the logistics for today's flight. I had to keep on waiting patiently.

At about 11:30, a car alarm went off. Car alarms are so common in South America that I had grown completely oblivious to them, but this was a special case because there weren't any cars in Puerto Obaldia. It turned out that it was the warning that the plane was about to land, so everyone had to stay clear of the runway. Most of the town gathered to watch the most interesting part of the day when the plane hit the runway with about six inches to spare and dropped off its passengers from Panama City. The new passengers got on board and when the plane was just about to take off, one of the kids playing baseball (the only people not watching the plane) made a bad throw and the ball rolled right onto the runway. Someone ran after it, but the plane was already revving up its propellers for the takeoff. The ball slowly rolled across the pavement and came to a rest just on the other side, barely outside the plane's trajectory. The flight left without incident and I had the rest of the day to relax.

One of the military men told me there wasn't a flight for tomorrow, so I became nervous that I would have to wait three more days in Puerto Obaldia. The plane ticket lady finally wrote down my name, but told me she had no idea if the plane would indeed be back tomorrow. The Italian group I had met a few days ago on the boat showed up and were put on the list as well. I spent the rest of the day sleeping through the intense heat and hanging out on the deserted beach. The military had the town well under control and were very nice to me, but they insisted that I couldn't leave their watch because they had no control of the jungle beyond the hills. Puerto Obaldia is a beautiful place, but there's nothing to do here so I hope I can get out tomorrow.

Crossing to Panama

February 2, 2008
Day 857
Crossing the Gap, Day 3

Picture of me.

Me at the border between Colombia and Panama.

I got up early and promptly began waiting for a boat. Nobody seemed to know when one would leave, but they assured me the a boat would indeed be going north to Sapzurro at some point. Eventually I got the ride I was looking for and was in the last settlement in Colombia.

Sapzurro was even smaller than Capurgana, with a few deserted beaches and some small fishing boats to keep its few residents occupied. From there I walked up a hill marking the border between Colombia and Panama, and made it to a small monument and a hut with police officers from both countries. They looked at my passport but didn't search my backpack because they knew I had nowhere to run to. I took one last look at South America and headed down the hill and into Panama.

Yet another tiny village called La Miel was on the other side. The people told me there weren't many boats leaving from there, and maybe I'd have to wait until tomorrow to get out. I got lucky, however, when some police showed up for a shift change and took me away in their boat. We went a few minutes north to Puerto Olbaldia, the last town before a long coastline of uninhabited jungle. Customs did a light search of my backpack, but didn't seem too concerned with me. It would have been quite a maneuver to smuggle Colombian contraband into the country on a police boat.

I found out for certain that there would be no long-distance boats out of town for at least several days, and even then, nothing was certain. That left flying as my only option. There was a flight scheduled for tomorrow, but everyone involved in ticket sales was off drinking somewhere. Immigration was also nowhere to be seen, so the drama of getting my passport stamped was left up in the air as well.

After an entire afternoon of escaping the heat and asking everyone who would listen about tomorrow's flight, I was finally informed tonight that it was already full. However, somebody "always" canceled at the last minute, so maybe I'd still get to leave. I hung out with Ricardo, a Colombian ex patriot living in Panama, for a few beers. The Dutch-imported lager was going for only sixty cents a can, so the village ran out before dark. From that point onward, we were stuck drinking boring rum. Puerto Olbaldia's nightlife consisted of three light bulbs, repetitive music loud enough to wake the people in Colombia, and about a dozen people who found that the best place to listen to said music was three inches in front of the speakers. It was a beautiful place, but life moved way too slowly for me to enjoy sitting around much longer.

The photo album for this entry is here.

A Butt-Breaking Boat

February 1, 2008
Day 856

Crossing the Gap, Day 2

Picture of beach.

The beach of Capurganá.

The boat was crowded and left early. When I jumped on board, everyone was already wearing a life jacket, and in a place that's normally so cavalier about safety precautions, I knew it was going to be a bumpy one. When we were slowly moving across the channel outside of Turbo, the guy sitting next to me grabbed my arm and started talking to me. He said he was a college professor in Manizales, which was fitting because he had a complete teacher's personality. He constantly tapped me and pointed out obvious stuff like "Hey look, there's lots of different species of trees there," "That's an island, but nobody lives on it," and "The water's not very clear here."

When we got into the open sea, the water got choppy, but the guy kept talking to me. I didn't understand why he kept poking me whenever he wanted to say anything. After all, I was the only person next to him. But before he could get really annoying, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the twin 200 HP engines and thirty people screaming. The swells were three meters high and we went airborne and got salty baths several times. The assistant didn't bother fastening my backpack tightly to the pile of luggage it was sitting on, and before long, it was resting completely free of restraints and waiting to plunge into the depths. I couldn't do much about it, though, because I was a few rows back and didn't want to attempt to stand up. It flopped around like a giant tuna fish that had leaped into the boat, but managed to stay out of the water for the trip.

After an hour of constantly crashing the waves, a guy in the front made the driver stop and shouted in Spanish, "You're breaking my butt hole!" I thought that was a weird way to describe the sensation, and the snickers from around the boat said that the other passengers felt the same way. His olive skin and dark hair made me presume him to be Argentine or Spanish, but later I found out that he and his four comrades around him were Italian. They complained many times and told the driver to slow down, but that only encouraged him to go faster. Riding on that boat was like having a chair pulled out from beneath you every ten seconds, for nearly three straight hours. I was amazed that nobody puked.

I felt slightly shorter when we got to Capurganá. Once safely on land, the Italians continued waving their arms and shouting at the driver, but everyone else on the boat was quiet. One lady said we should just thank the lord we arrived safely. It demonstrated an interesting cultural difference: In countries like Italy, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but in South America, nothing in life is meant to be easy. Americans, on the other hand, are generally too afraid of living up to their loud and ugly stereotypes to complain.

Capurganá was a sleepy little town with no road access near the border with Panama. I was hoping to get a boat from there all the way to Colon, Panama, but I was told that few ships made that trip, and they didn't run on any predictable schedule. I did learn that a flight would be leaving from the Panamanian side in two days, so that seemed like my only viable option to continue heading north. I got stamped out of the country and hoped for the best on my journey across the border tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

One Last Bus Ride

January 31, 2008
Day 855

Crossing the Gap, Day 1

It was finally time to leave South America. My first step was to take a bus from Medellin, the big mountainous city in the center of the country, to Turbo, a small port on the Caribbean coast. The bus started along the same road I already inadvertently knew from the other day, when I witnessed a group vomiting session due to a case of Colombian Mad Bus Driver Syndrome.

There were several interesting characters on the bus. When I saw my assigned seat, I was disappointed but not surprised to see a walrus of a man in the seat next to mine. I always hoped to be paired with a young, attractive girl on my long bus journeys, but normally got wedged next to a man who spilled over into my seat. We exchanged the familiar glance and head nod of strangers who knew they were in for a long ride, and proceeded down the road with our arms and thighs stuck together in the sweaty heat of the tropics.

On our first stop for breakfast, I started talking to a twenty-three-year-old guy who appeared to have a mixture of black and indigenous backgrounds and was heading to Turbo with his mom. He was completely fascinated by me, and proceeded to ask me question after question without even bothering to listen to the responses. "Where are you from?" "For how long are you in Colombia?" "How is it possible to travel in Colombia?" "How much money does a ticket from the USA cost?" "Do you know Brad Pitt?" "How many kids do you have?" I was holding my own with the difficult task of simultaneously eating and answering his questions in a non-rude manner, but his mom quieted him down by saying, "He sure asks a lot of questions, doesn't he?" His line of questioning wasn't unusual, but the fact that his brain seemed to have been transferred from a little kid to a grown-up's body did.

Across from me was a British man, married to a Colombian woman, living in Spain. They were on the bus to visit some relatives in some little town in the middle of nowhere. He told me all about the current state of the American presidential elections, news which I'd been getting a lot of lately from people from all over the world. The fat man asked if he could have the aisle seat because he was getting off soon, abruptly ending my conversation with the British guy, but I was happy to be on the verge of having some breathing room.

Two hours later, the fat man left and finally no part of my body was touching another human being's. He was replace by a girl who I took to be about twenty-three and was much skinnier, although her pregnant belly began protruding as soon as she sat down. She had a mature attitude but didn't understand a word I said to her for some reason, and I quickly became frustrated and stopped trying to make small talk. Later she revealed that she was only thirteen and had been working in Medellin. She was taking the bus home early to surprise her mom. Her situation saddened me, but I couldn't help but think what a surprise that visit was going to be.

After starting in the mountains, the bus quickly dropped back down to sea level and we entered a thick jungle that was only interrupted by the occasional town and many banana plantations. I got through the monotony and heat of the trip by sleeping, something I had perfected in two years of bus travel. Most of the road wasn't paved, however, and I frequently was awakened when my head slammed into the window next to me due to a ubiquitous pothole. Just five years ago it would have been unthinkable to take this route due to the region's paramilitary activity, but nowadays there is enough military presence along the road to make it safe, at least during the day.

I arrived in Turbo in time for sunset after ten solid hours on the bus. It was a small city and very poor, but not dangerous. In fact, everyone I talked to had the laid-back friendliness that characterized all of my Caribbean travel so far. The next step for me in leaving Colombia was to get a boat to the Panamanian border, and I found out that one was leaving early tomorrow morning. Today was a long one, and in spite of the bumpy road, everything had gone smoothly so far.

A Theoretically Interactive Museum

January 30, 2008
Day 854

Picture of girl.

The girl who guided me.

For my last day in Medellin, I went to the interactive Explora Museum. It had a lot of cool exhibits showing the history of the earth, what DNA looks like, how there are lots of different kinds of people on earth, and what ice looks like. A girl guided me through most of it, but she took away all the fun when she pushed the buttons and pulled the levers of the exhibits while explaining them to me. Eventually I had to push her out of the way and take over. A lot of little kids came in the afternoon and had a great time running around everywhere. I ended up having to push them away too.

Sometimes it's Better to Stay in Bed

January 29, 2008
Day 853

Picture of Santa Fe.

Getting to Santa Fe wasn't easy.

Today I tried to get to a colonial town called Santa Fe de Antioquia, but things didn't quite work out as planned. I got on one of the frequent buses out of Medellin without any trouble, but I didn't realize that the main road only skirted the edge of Santa Fe, as opposed to going directly through the center, like it would in most towns. Consequently, I didn't realize it when we made it to the town, and the bus quickly continued snaking its way around the mountains. An hour after we had already passed Santa Fe, the bus assistant saw me and realized that I should have gotten off already. He apologized for the error and had the driver drop me off at the next town.

I found a bus going the other direction right away; everyone was having lunch at an eatery. I explained my ordeal to the driver, a jolly old man who made it his cause to practice his three-word English vocabulary with me for the next half hour while we ate. He must have felt bad for me missing my stop because when we left the eatery, he immediately began driving like a maniac around the windy roads, throwing everyone to and fro. Soon the young assistant stumbled his way back and forth along the aisle like a drunken sailor, handing out plastic bags along the way. Roughly half the bus began vomiting at that point, while the assistant had a laugh with the jumble of teenagers strewn about the back seat.

The fun ended when the assistant failed to give a bag to one of the small children on the bus. His semi-digested chicken and rice got tossed all over the place because the bus was still swerving so violently, and the driver finally stopped the bus when he smelled the acid and saw the green hue on everyone's faces. He ordered the assistant to clean everything and went outside to smoke a cigarette. Rather than apologize for his sadistic driving, he pointed out the landscape and encouraged me to take a picture of it. We stood on the side of the road for half an hour while the assistant scrubbed the bus down.

The driver was slightly more chilled out when we finally got going again, but as a result of the day's snafus, I didn't get to Santa Fe until sunset. It looked like a nice enough place, but all I had time to do was sit around the plaza for awhile and catch another bus back to Medellin. Sometimes I feel like I'd be better off staying in bed all day.

The photo album for this entry is here.

More of Medellín

January 27-28, 2008
Days 851-852

Picture of cable.

Medellin's cable car system.

I was in no hurry to leave Medellin, so I spent a couple more days sightseeing the area. I discovered that like several cities in South America, Medellin had a cable car system that went to the top of a large hill. However, unlike the other cities, Medellin's cable cars actually had a practical use as well: getting the poor people to their homes. The coolest thing about it was that it was attached directly to the metro line, so going to the top didn't cost anything more than a metro ticket. I thought it was a great idea to help out one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellin.

I also got the chance to have a reunion with Judy. I originally met her a few months ago in Bogotá, where we were both vacationing. Like everyone else in Medellin, she seemed genuinely happy to see tourism finally starting to happen in her city after so many years of turmoil. Once she gets her master's degree in accounting, she would like to move to Bogotá, where there are more jobs, but she was definitely proud of her hometown, in the middle of paisa country.

Area Rocks and Lakes

January 26, 2008
Day 850

Picture of rock.

El Peñól.

I decided to get out of the city for the day and took a trip to the hills surrounding Medellin. After a short uphill bus ride, I was out of the city and in another world. My first stop was El Peñól, a massive 200-meter high rock sitting on top of a high hill. The Colombian genius engineers had built a staircase all the way to the top of the rock in a small crevasse on the side. I huffed and puffed my way up the stairs, constantly minding the broken guardrails, low-hanging overhead rocks, and crumbling steps. At the top of the rock was a three-story building with an amazing panoramic view. I could see the entire chain of lakes created by the dam that supplied power to Medellin, as well as the mandatory resorts and rich peoples' houses that came with such a beautiful place.

Next I took a shuttle to the nearby town of Guatapé. People were offering pontoon cruises around the lakes, there was a zip line at the edge of the main lake, the buildings and churches were prettily painted, and there were plenty of people from Medellin getting caught up in the hullabaloo. The little town, the lakes, and the forests that covered up most of the rest of the land in the region reminded me of Minocqua, WI. It was kind of a strange remembrance considering that Guatapé was thirty-five degrees closer to the equator than Minocqua.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Medellín After Escobar

January 24-25, 2008
Days 848-849

Picture of downtown.

Downtown Medellin.

Medellin used to be the most problematic city in Colombia. Pablo Escobar's drug cartel was more powerful than the government and was constantly at war with the other cartels, paramilitaries, and the legitimate military. Bombings and shootouts often happened in the middle of Medellin, and its inhabitants were generally afraid to leave their houses because of the violence. But as soon as I stepped off the bus in Medellin, I saw that everything had changed.

Medellin has undergone an incredible recovery since the days of Escobar. I immediately had a nice conversation with a vendor as I ate breakfast, and he seemed genuinely happy that tourists were coming to his city to see what it was really like. As I rode the above-ground metro through the city, I saw that it was surrounded by green hills, had almost no garbage on the ground, was full of parks and forests, and felt safe. People were going about their daily business in the streets, and had no intentions of kidnapping the tourists. But the best part was the climate. Being about 1500 meters above sea level, it was known as the "city of eternal spring," and had Goldilocks-style perfect weather year-round much like Arequipa, Cochabamba, and Sucre. It was obvious why I had gotten so many recommendations to visit Medellin from other backpackers.

Picture of coffee.

A nice place to relax with some coffee and watch the city.

I spent my first few days CouchSurfing with a local paisa named Carlos. He was getting ready to go on vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos, but he still had some time to host me for a bit. He had traveled extensively in Europe, a bit in northern Africa, through most of South America, and lived in the US for a year to study English. Under his advice, I went downtown to the Botero Museum and finally figured out why I had been seeing so many statues of fat people around Colombia. I also went to the botanical gardens, which were largely under construction, but still had some nice, pretty flowers to look at. I don't normally like traveling in big cities, but Medellin seemed like a fine place to spend my last days in South America.

The photo album for this entry is here.