Friday, January 27, 2012

La Costa Caribe, Colombia

This post is long overdue and laziness is the main culprit. First I was on holiday and didn't have much to write about, then I was travelling and I was too busy to write, and by the time I got back I'd got so used to not-writing that I just decided to carry on. However my time in Ibagué is drawing to a close and another travelling jaunt is nearly upon me and if I don't write up my time on the Caribbean coast now, I probably never will!


First stop was Cartagena, a jewel of a city located about 500 miles almost directly north of Ibagué. Cartagena is one of the most-visited cities in Colombia and during high season, which is when we visited, it is heaving with tourists. This doesn't stop it from being incredibly attractive, although this is mostly limited to within the walls of the old city. The old city was much larger than I expected, with lots of long main thoroughfares criss-crossed with narrow, cobbled streets, and interspersed among them, wide plazas either filled with fountains, benches and greenery or dotted with statues and lined with imposing buildings. On our first evening we (I was travelling with Carole) went straight to the sea-facing ramparts to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sun go down, which was a beautifully relaxing way to start the holiday.
The rest of our time in Cartagena, and in fact most of our time on the coast, continued in the same leisurely vein. On our second day in Cartagena we walked again through 'El Centro' and out to the Caribbean sea, which lies just past a main road circling the old city. There aren't really any beaches but there were a couple of small spots with some sand, and we found one of these, did some paddling and collected shells.
The next day featured more of the same, wandering through the city and just enjoying the sights, although we spent the morning of that day in an entirely different way - bathing in the mud volcano of El Totumo. It was a very strange experience, the mud is so viscous you can barely move through it and have to be literally pushed around by a group of men whose job it is to spend all day in the volcano doing just that! Afterwards we washed ourselves clean in a nearby lake and had a delicious lunch in a neighbouring village at a restaurant with a lovely view of the sea.

Then we travelled east to Santa Marta. Not as pretty as Cartagena but then it had beaches so it didn't need to be, and there was a space and breeziness to it which was quite refreshing. We spent most of our time in Santa Marta either on the beach or in the sea, and it was lovely. We also saw in 2012 there on a rocky jetty accompanied by some of the other ICYE volunteers and were promised fireworks but we didn't see anything. Still, we made enough noise ourselves to make up for it, singing and whooping and having a brilliant time. We prefaced this with dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant (where I actually had a semi-decent mezze) and then afterwards went on to a club 'La Puerta' where we danced until the early hours.

Further east from Santa Marta is the small fishing village of Taganga and Parque Tayrona, which is where we spent the final days of our holiday. Taganga was a continuation of what we'd been doing in Santa Marta: sunbathing, swimming in the sea and relaxing.

Tayrona however was a little different, firstly it's a Parque Nacional so we had to get a bus there, pay our entrance fee, get bussed further in and then walk for a good hour through a very muddy rainforest to get to where we were staying. Then the beaches are wild, rugged and bordered by mountains. And the sea in some parts is rough, too dangerous to swim in, and you can tell by the size and sound of the waves crashing on the shore. It was very beautiful and very crowded. It was bizarre to be in such an untainted landscape and to be accompanied by so many other tourists, you felt it should just be you, the sea and the sand crabs.
Our time in Tayrona was too short really, but we had to get back and although it was very pretty we were staying in hammocks, and one night in a hammock is more than enough for me! So, we made the tortuous trip back through the rainforest, the buses weren't running so we had to walk even further on the way back, and all in all it was quite nice to be back on the bus heading back to Ibagué and a comfortable bed.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (siete)

So, the last few weeks have been unusual, firstly in that I had a visitor! My friend Annie visited for just under a week at the beginning of December, which although brief was really lovely. Having been away for so long, seeing someone from back home that knows more about my family, friends and life other than just what I’ve told them was great. Although it also reminded me of what I was missing and has made me look forward to going home even more. I’m still happy to be here though, and it was nice to be able to show someone around where I live and do some sight-seeing together. We did some of the main attractions in Bogotá – Museo del Oro, Museo de Botero, Monserrate and, what was probably the highlight of the trip, a fancy meal at Andres Carne de Res D.C, with the best steak I’ve had since leaving Buenos Aires and a delicious Malbec to accompany it. We also spent a couple of days in Ibagué, where I introduced Annie to Karin and Carole, we took a trip to the museum, had a couple of meals out and saw the Christmas lights festooning Plaza Bolivar.

I was also working shorter hours the week before last, as Por Amor a Ti weren’t serving meals in the run-up to Christmas as they had a lot to sort out, so I was just holding English lessons and activities. The reason the foundation has been so busy was the annual Christmas party, held last Sunday. The children all get presents at the party, mostly clothes, so as there are only two members of staff other than me and Rey’s Mum, Doña Rosalba (who mostly does the cooking), they had to be out-and-about buying clothes for over 70 kids.

The party itself was a lot of fun; we spent the day at an out-door pool and play area with water slides, a lake and a playground among other things. We had lunch, there was a band playing Christmas songs and the kids all got given their presents. I got a tan, the first time ever for me in December. It felt pretty weird having only 6 days to go until Christmas and hanging out by the pool in a bikini, but I am definitely not complaining!

I am now officially on holiday and I spent last week in full-on relax mode. I got some English books out from the library (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley), and just read for two days straight, which was a real treat. I did my Christmas shopping, met up with Carole for coffee and ice-cream, and managed to sleep in past 9am a couple of times too. I also attended two novenas: (derived from the number 9, there are nine novenas from the 16th December until the 24th), people attend them with family, friends and neighbours, hymns and carols are sung, prayers are said and cake and sweets are served.

And then, before I knew it, it was Christmas Eve! In Colombia they celebrate Christmas, or Navidad, at the stroke of midnight on the 24th December, so we spent the day with Olga Lucia’s family, and then came back to our apartment in the afternoon for a siesta before heading back over to her Mum’s house for 10pm. There we had the final novena before opening the presents (I think traditionally presents are opened later on but we had three eager children who couldn’t wait that long), and eating the festive sweet natilla accompanied by buñuelos. We sat down for dinner at 11.50pm, which was pavo – turkey, with the meat taken out, processed with herbs and spices and put back in the skin to be boiled and roasted, from what I could see of the cooking process – which was good, especially with the fig sauce that accompanied it, plus mashed potatos with peas mixed in. Not the mountain of food that I’m accustomed to but at that hour it was just the right amount and I couldn’t have eaten more. At midnight we heard the firecrackers being let off outside and everybody wished each other a Feliz Navidad, and then after an hour or so of chatting, we headed home and I went to bed, quite content.

Yesterday was Christmas Day and after a nice chat with my family on Skype – they’d just finished eating Christmas dinner and were starting on the pudding – I again spent the day with Olga Lucia and her family, first by the pool and then back at our apartment, having left-overs for lunch, watching TV and eating natilla. To me yesterday felt more like Christmas as it was more similar to what we do at home, minus the pool!

I also packed my rucksack yesterday for mine and Carole’s trip to the Carribbean coast; we leave this evening and I’m very excited! We’ll be spending New Year’s Eve up there and I’m looking forward to seeing in 2012 with balmy temperatures and a cocktail in-hand. It’s unlikely I’ll be updating this blog before I get back so, PROSPERO AÑO NUEVO to you all, I'll see you next year!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (seis)

It's been a quiet couple of weeks; my friend Annie is coming to visit me tomorrow (estoy tan emocionada!) so I'm trying to save what little money I have by not leaving the house and instead trying to go to the gym regularly, attempting NaNoWriMo (it didn't go well, I only managed about 3,000 words) and watching endless TV, which doesn't really make for great blogging material.

So, as I've not been doing much, I thought I'd outline a typical day for me, here in Ibagué:

I wake up around 8am, shower, have breakfast and pack my bag for the day - a bottle of filtered tap water (I can't drink the water at my project as it makes me ill), my teaching materials, plus phone, keys, etc. I get the lift down from my flat, get buzzed out of the building by whichever security guard is on duty and walk up the road to la 4a to catch my bus. The great thing about the busetas (as they're called) here is that you can flag them down anywhere on their route, so I don't have to walk too far. I catch the number 6, boarding the buseta through the turnstile at the front and paying the standard fare of $1400, which is about 50p.

The radio is nearly always playing and I normally try to get a window seat so I can look out at the city as we drive through it. The journey takes between 20 minutes and half an hour and we pass through the centre of Ibagué, and then down into the barrio where my project is based. It's one of the poorer neighbourhoods and you can tell, from the size and state of the houses and from the potholes in the road (although to be fair that's not saying much as there are potholes everywhere in Colombia). I ding the bell at the back of the bus to request my stop (again anywhere on the route) and get out.

My project, Por Amor a Ti, is based at the family home of Rey, my manager, and his Mum, who cooks the food, plus his brother and his brother's son. Rey's sister-in-law lives nearby and occasionally helps out, and his nieces and nephew come over regularly to see Rey and their grandmother. I normally arrive at the project around 9.30am to set up the room that we use as a classroom, which is the main reception room of the house. I normally teach between 3-8 children at one time, sometimes more. I teach every day - Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the older kids and Tuesday and Thursday for the younger ones.

After class I help set up the dining room - a covered courtyard at the centre of the house, arranging tables and stools, and getting the drinks ready - fresh juice with at least a kilo of sugar mixed in that I pour into cups and hand out. We can seat about 30 kids at one time and normally have at least two and half sittings between 11.30am and 12.30pm, which is when we serve lunch. Lunch for the kids can be soup or beans, almost always served with rice and sometimes plantain or potatoes.

After we've served the kids, I get lunch, some soup generally and always rice with vegetables or stew. I take my lunch break between 12.30pm and 2pm depending on when the kids arrive, and I spend it preparing lessons or updating the site and facebook page I created for the project. Then I teach again, tidy up the classroom and head home around 4.30pm.

After work I sometimes meet up with Karin and Carole, either in town, or we'll walk to Carole's house which is about 15 blocks out from the centre. There we'll eat, chat and sometimes watch a film. We sometimes get our nails done (it's so cheap here, only $5000, which is around £1.65!) or we might go out for coffee or food. Otherwise I'll head home and watch two hours of 30 Rock, Community and Seinfeld whilst also browsing the internet and updating my tumblr, which is boring for you all to read about, but pretty fun for me! Then I'll read my book (currently Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky), update my diary and head to bed around 10pm.

And then I do it all again the next day!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Boyacá, Colombia

Colombia is made up of 32 departments and Boyacá is one of these. Located about 10 hours (by bus) north-east of Ibagué, I took a trip up there last Friday to visit some friends. Boyacá is very different to what I’ve seen of Colombia so far. The buildings in Tibasosa, the village where I stayed, were all old, conquistador-style buildings, and it was very pretty and quaint. The house that my friends are living in has a open courtyard in the middle of the house with rooms leading off from it, wooden shutters on the windows and a sloping roof made from terracotta tiles. In short, it was lovely.

We explored quite a bit in Boyacá - Saturday we took a trip to the Lago de Tota via Aquitania, where it was raining quite heavily but we managed to get some snaps of the imposing church there. From Aquitania we took the bus round the lake to Playa Blanca, known for it’s naturally white sand. It was very scenic but also very cold, we were 3,000m up after all and the sky was filled with grey, scudding clouds threatening rain. We took shelter inside the only restaurant, known for having terrible food. We thought we’d be safe with a hot beverage, we were wrong. Apparently this restuarant can’t even mix together hot milk and chocolate powder successfully, it was undrinkable.

Afterwards we walked up from Playa Blanca and back onto the road circling the lake, the weather had cleared a bit by this point and we could flag our bus from any point on the road so we kept walking for a while, taking photos and enjoying being the only non-Colombians probably for a couple of hundred miles! Eventually we got on the bus and headed to Iza, a small village famed for its picturesque parque principale and its many dessert stalls. The vendors offer you a taste of any dessert you ask to try and after trying four or five we picked out our favourites and enjoyed them sat down in the sun. Then we got on the bus and headed back to Tibasosa, to Italian food, beers and card games.

Sunday and the weather was still pretty grim, very unusual for Tibasosa apparently, I obviously just got lucky (!). We spent the day helping to decorate some carts for a procession later on in the day - they had a festival going on - and by coincidence we ended up decorating the Tolima cart (the department I live in), cutting out paper flowers and blowing up balloons. Then we had lunch on the balcony of one of the resturants my friends’ host family own, (the Italian restaurant being the other), overlooking the parque and the procession. We had the traditional lunch of Ajiaco chicken and potato soup which is absolutely delicious. The soup is served with rice, a slice of avocado, capers and cream. You pour the cream on to the soup and season with capers, and have the rice and avocado alongside it. ES MUY RICO.

After a bit of a relax and recuperation in bed we went out dancing in Duitama, a small city half an hours drive away from Tibasosa, where we drank a bottle of aguardiente, on top of the beers and other bottle of aguardiente we’d already had, and so we got quite drunk. The lie-in this drunkeness resulted in the next day put a hold on our trip to Nobsa (I laughed every time anyone mentioned the name of this place), known for its ruanas, the Colombian equivalent of a poncho, now been postponed until the next time I visit Boyacá, which I hope will be in February sometime, as I had to get the bus back to Ibagué.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (cinco)

So our travelling plans fell through for this weekend but it's actually turned out really nice, and I spent most of it out and about on my own, which is quite unusual for me here. I finally managed to make it to the Museo de Arte del Tolima (MAT) on Saturday, our only art gallery here in Ibagué, which is teeny-tiny! But the exhibition they've got on at the moment is actually quite likeable despite the fact that it's based on football-related images. The artist, Demián Flores, is Mexican and in the main body of the exhibition he's taken photos of footballers training, from the 70s it looks like, and added traditional Mexican designs to them so that the positions the footballers are holding look kind of weird and macabre.

MAT also have a weekly cinema club and the genre for this month just happens to be science-fiction, which as you can imagine I was pretty happy about
! So after the exhibition I sat in a café for an hour or so watching the world go by and scribbling down some thoughts, and then returned to MAT to watch George Lucas's directorial debut THX 1138. I wasn't overly impressed, I have to say, I can see why I'd never heard of it until the day before yesterday.
The film I saw at the cinema on Sunday (solo cinema trips twice in two days might help you realise quite how small my social circle is here
!) was much better; In Time, has a pretty interesting and original premise - a society in the future where money is literally time, and people are paid in and pay for items with minutes, hours and days, unless they're super-duper rich and they're paid in months, years or even decades - although it was let down a bit with the dialogue.

(A photo of MAT from their monthly newsletter and my observations scribbled around it.)

Then this morning I woke up (before 8am as bloody usual), started a crossword and had breakfast, then Olga Lucia (the lady I'm living with), suggested a bike ride, first down the ciclov
ía (every Sunday most cities in Colombia close off some of their main roads for the sole use of cyclists, joggers and walkers) and then onto a cycle route down near the airport.
So off we went, freewheeling through the city and out into the countryside, and it was just beautiful. The weather was perfect: warm and sunny, with a light breeze, and we were cycling
! And surrounded on all sides by the brightest greens - lush rice paddies and verdant pastures filled with cows and horses grazing, and in the distance the mountains marching off towards Bogotá. I felt blissfully happy!

The bliss soon faded however and I was feeling a lot less appreciative of cycling and the scenery on the way back, our carefree coasting on the way out replaced with pedalling. Lots of it. Uphill. In the 25 degree heat.
After six months of not cycling my body was rebelling and I had to stop many, many times, close to fainting at one point
! When we finally made it back to the flat (I wasn't sure that I'd ever make it) and had a chance to glance in the mirror, my face looked like I'd been boiled alive. (Dad, Mum and Shabnam - remember the steps in Dubrovnik? This was so much worse.)

Despite the complaining though it made me realise how much I've missed cycling and I want to do it again, although next time I will be venturing out much, much earlier and I will be avoiding the midday sun

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pensamientos (uno)

I've been thinking alot about THINGS recently: clothes, shoes, furniture, make-up, CDs, books and comics. Having lived out of a rucksack for the last half-a-year, I've really started to appreciate how good it is to have things of your own, and more importantly, a place to put them. Here in Ibagué I have my own room, which I've managed to sort-of make my own with a little help from photos, my ever-growing stack of books and other assorted items, like make-up and notebooks. I also did some clothes shopping when I got here, (I thought I was going to be living in Bogotá when I packed to come away and that requires a much more wintery wardrobe than the weather here in Ibagué, so I had to stock up on some sleeveless tops and lighter-coloured clothing), which made me feel a bit more at home, but still, I miss my clothes. The fashion here is very different and if it wasn't for tennis I would've ended up having to buy clothes that just aren't 'me'. It sounds silly but it isn't really, because clothes are what people see you in every day and it becomes your image, how people recognise you, and how you present yourself to the world.

My time here in South America has taught me lots of things, and this is by no means the most important but it's what's on my mind at the moment - clothes matter! This has been brought home to me in particular when faced with the hazard of the South American, and I have to say in particular the Colombian, washing machine (one pair of jeans and one white top ruined so far!), which means it is essential to have durable clothes that can be worn in a variety of situations, e.g. the perfect pair of black trousers (thank you, tennis) or the leopard-print cardigan that goes with everything (I miss you, H&M!), and that most importantly make you feel better about yourself.

Because when you're having a bad day: you miss your family, the kids you work with are being a pain, you can't say what you mean in Spanish; you can go home, put on your PJs and your comfy cardie and feel less crappy. Or the opposite: you're having a good day and you want to show it; you can put on that dress you love and which everyone has always complimented you on, team it with your favourite sandals and everyone else can see how good you're feeling today!

It's the same with make-up, I don't wear it much here, especially not at work, but I've found that something as simple as painting my nails in a colour I know is all-the-rage back home makes me feel less adrift, more connected.

Obviously you could get started on the whole argument that clothes, make-up, etc are the influence of advertising, blah, blah, blah, but I don't think that's entirely true and it's defnitely not the whole story. I know I feel better when I wear clothes here that I would also wear at home in the UK and it feels nice to have a piece of home here, out where people can see it. Being away from home doesn't mean putting yourself or your life on hold and clothes are part of that.

#1 American Apparel top, cardigan from H&M and Topshop loafers, all of which I wear at least a few times week

#2 Belts make it slightly less obvious that I'm wearing the same trousers and skirt, over and over again

#3 My shelves

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bogotá, Colombia (tres) / Ibagué, Colombia (cuatro)

Last weekend we went to Bogotá, and it was so nice to get out of Ibagué and have a change of pace and scenery.

We travelled up on the Friday evening and left late-afternoon Sunday, and in-between lots of fun was had. The main reason for the visit was because ICYE Colombia was celebrating its 30th anniversary on the Saturday. They booked out a big function room at a restaurant and invited a couple of hundred people; there was champagne, dinner, dancing, a couple of speeches, and lots and lots of free alcohol.

For me the best part was meeting up with other volunteers living elsewhere in Colombia and catching up; exchanging stories about our projects, families and respective cities (or in some cases, villages!)

I didn't really do that much whilst I was in Bogotá, but it was fun just to hang out with a different set of people and do something different. One thing we did do was make a trip to the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogota (MAMBO), which was pretty interesting, although I was very disappointed to find that the shop was shut. Don't people realise the best thing about visiting a gallery is buying postcards of your favourite art afterwards?!
On our way to and from the gallery we also had the pleasure of experiencing Bogotán weather - cold rain and lots of it! - which I really hadn't missed.

You may have noticed from my tone in this and my last post that I'm not feeling entirely positive about my life in Colombia right now. I think after the bustle and goings-on of Buenos Aires and Bogotá, living in a place like Ibagué, with not much going on feels a little flat and disappointing. It doesn't help that we (me and the other two volunteers) have been struggling to make a firm set of friends here.

Still, I have to make this perfectly clear: despite the loneliness and frustration I have sometimes felt, missing family and friends like you wouldn't believe, and the difficulty in learning a new language, this is hands-down one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life and I'm so glad I made it. And I've been trying to focus on the positives: I have a great project here, the weather's nice and the night-life can be pretty rowdy! I've also got some really fun weekend trips coming up, a visit from a friend in December, and then I have almost a month off for the holidays, so there's a lot to look forward to.