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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I'm attempting National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (tres)

Even though I dreamt about and planned this trip for months and months, sometimes I do just want to be back at home, sitting on my bed, engrossed in my laptop, with my parents listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen below me and my sis chatting on the phone to her friends in the room next door. This evening I've had to make do with just the laptop on my bed, but it has made me feel a little better, rediscovering my tumblr and perusing the blogs that I used to read whilst bored senseless at work. It took me back so much so that when I glanced out of the window and saw the Ibagueñan skyline I was momentarily confused as to where I was!

It has been a strange couple of days, with some major downs and not so many ups unfortunately. Still, it's nearly the weekend and this time we're off to Bogotá for the 30th anniversary celebration of ICYE Colombia, which should be a rollocking good time! I've decided that weekend trips away are the way forward and over the next few weeks I hope to visit Pereira, Armenia and anywhere else nearby that takes my fancy.

* * *

I watched Heavenly Creatures this evening (quite wonderful and disturbing), which of course led me to other Peter Jackson-led films and these...

I would really love to visit New Zealand again, it's been over six years since I travelled there!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (dos)

Saturday morning with the whole weekend ahead of me is one of my favourite times of the week. I'm normally alone in the flat, and I sit listening to all the music I left behind in Manchester and that I miss more than I thought possible. It doesn't help that my mp3 broke in Bolivia so all I have is one CD that I bought in Argentina of this great performer I went to see at La Catedral, and of course the reams of vallenato, reggaeton, etc that is on the Colombian radio, which I enjoy but it's not quite the same.

That's how I spend pretty much every Saturday morning here, listening to music, reading the Guardian online and skyping my family, it's quite a peaceful start to the weekend and it really puts me in a good mood. This weekend is particularly nice as today (Monday) is a holiday too, and even though I enjoy my working at my project, I enjoy a three-day weekend even more.

Plus we have visitors from Bogotá so we've been showing them all the delights that Ibagué has to offer. They arrived on Saturday and we all headed up to the Museo de Arte del Tolima, our one art gallery here in Ibagué and which I am yet to vist, which was closed. So we decided instead to go for a coffee, but the café we chose had run out of coffee and wouldn't be getting any for some time. Then it started to rain.

-- Autumn has finally arrived here in Ibagué, the temperature has dropped (although it's still warm by my standards), and there has been a lot of rain, with streams of rainwater running down the roads, forming massive puddles, and rain filling up the river and playing havoc with our water supply. There is a strange irony here that when it's absolutely pissing it down there is a lack of water as the river we get it from is too full, of water, rocks and other debris, that they can't get enough water out of it. So I had the bizarre experience the other day, of getting in absolutely soaked, wanting a hot shower and not being able to get one as we had no water in the building. --

So anyway, Saturday; it started to rain and we headed over to another café for coffees, and then as we couldn't think of anything else to do and the rain had got even heavier, putting a stop to my tour of the centre, we went home. We met up again later though for dinner, which was nice. Then I went home and the others went out, and from all accounts had a pretty good night, but it wasn't quite the 'interesting day in Ibagué' that we'd planned.

Luckily yesterday was quite wonderful and made up for the ups and downs of Saturday. We were invited to the finca of a friend of Carole's host brother, way out at the end of Via Restrepo, the road that leads out of Ibagué and towards the Nevado del Tolima. This is the road that my family's finca is also off and it's full of restaurants and street vendors selling lots of traditional Colombian food. The finca we were visiting however was very much off-road, so much so that it can't be accessed by car, only by foot or on horseback. So, we rode up! On horses! Well, horses and a mule. And guess who got the mule. The safe, steady, and oh, so slow, mule.
I didn't mind too much though, as I've never ridden, and we were going up a fairly steep slope, and our pace meant that I had time to look around me and realise:

I'm riding a horse, (OK, fine, a mule), but still; I'm riding uphill, surrounded by beautiful forested mountains swathed in cloud, in Colombia.

We passed several other fincas on our way up, all brightly-painted with gables and porches and gardens filled with flowers. There were lemon trees, streams, blue dragonflies, it was lovely.
And the view! Once we reached the actual finca, we dismounted and I went to look down the slope we had just climbed up from: I could see and hear the grey, rushing water of the river that runs through the middle of the valley, the rocky outfaces of the hills peeping out from under dense greenery, I felt like I was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I just wanted to fall down into the landscape below and float away.

After the excitement of the ride up we all just hung out, playing with the dogs, enjoying the scenery and drinking tinto. We also helped prepare lunch, the standard Colombian fare of steak, papas and guacamole, which was simple yet delicious.

Afterwards we went for a walk further up the mountain to pick mora and passionfruit, but the weather was too misty to climb much higher and it was starting to rain and get dark, so we headed back down to the house, and then further down back to Via Restrepo and where our car was parked. I walked down with a couple of others, not feeling particularly confident about riding downhill in the rainy half-light, not even a mule! But some of the others rode down and looking back up at them, coming down the slope on horseback with their hoods up against the rain, I felt a little like I was in a fairy-tale, specifically The Hobbit, and that I was watching Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves riding through the wilderness. It was quite something, and a fitting end to a rather magical day here in Colombia!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Ibagué, Colombia (uno)

It's October. Stating the obvious it seems but what with the climate here and the speed at which time is passing, it doesn't seem obvious at all. Today marks a month since I moved here from Bogotá to start my six month volunteering placement and I'm starting to get into a routine here: Monday to Friday I take the number 6 buseta to Barrio Yuldaima which is where Por Amor a Ti, the foundation I work for, are based. It's a 20 minute journey more or less and on my way there I go up Carrera Quinta, the main thoroughfare, and up through the city centre. The foundation is essentially a soup kitchen for kids, feeding between 60-100 kids lunch, but they also have other programs such as sponsoring various kids and paying for their school uniforms and equipment. And now they also have English lessons six times a week too, courtesy of yours truly!

The first week here I was just getting used to working every day again, but it wasn't difficult as the people I work with are really accomodating and friendly, and the kids are all so sweet and really nice. I was constantly getting asked, how do you say this in English? And constantly asking, how do you say this in Spanish? My language skills have definitely improved, they have to as noone really speaks English, but it's a great way to learn, very intense!

Then on my first full weekend here my host brother, Juan Diego, who is living and studying in Bogotá, visited us (I'm living with his Mum, Olga Lucia, a lovely lady) and took me, Karin, Carole (the other ICYE volunteer based here) and her host sister, Marcela, out, and we danced the night away. The next day, (me feeling slightly worse for wear), Juan Diego, Olga Lucia and I drove out to a finca and I got to see some of the beautiful countryside surrounding Ibagué, mostly lush forests, very mountainous, with the peaks swathed in cloud and sudden rain showers interspersed with bright sunshine.

My second week here I managed to fall ill from gastroenteritis so I spent most of the week in bed within close proximity to the nearest toilet, watching episodes of 'Fringe' and 'The Big Bang theory', both of which I love. That weekend three of our friends volunteering in Bogotá visited us and we showed them around the city, and went to a great outdoor pool about 30 minutes outside of Ibagué; there were two pools, a "beach", lots of palm trees and waters slides, so we had a really great day. The night before that we also went to Carole's host family's home where we were cooked really tasty Mexican food by Marcela and were introduced to some of her friends.

The third week here was my birthday week (I am now 26 years old, increible!) and I felt spoilt as everyone was so generous. Early on the morning of my birthday I recieved a text from Karin telling me to prepare for a surprise later on in the day and to make sure to bring trainers with me when I met with her and Carole after work. Arriving at work I was greeted with hugs, smiles and big bouquet of orange, yellow, pink and red flowers all tied with a big orange bow. I took in some balloons and sweets for the kids and most of them greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and a 'feliz cumpleaños', which was adorable!

Then after work I met Karin and Carole for ice-cream, pedicures (Karin and I) and manicures (Carole) and the surprise - a dance class, which was really good fun, and a also my present, which was a months worth of lessons! Afterwards we went for cheeseburgers and a beer and it was a lovely end to a lovely day.

So we've been attending our classes three times a week and it's been so much fun, and a very energetic way of learning the many dances they have here in Colombia, inlcuding merengue, salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, etc. The weekend after my birthday we had the opportunity to try out some of our new steps when we went out with some of the people we met at Carole's house and Juan Diego. We had a very drunken night involving litres of aguardiente and lots and lots of dancing, it was super mega bien! We didn't feel quite so positive about the night the next morning though when we were driving out to the finca for lunch, there were three very quiet Europeans in the back seat!

We perked up once we got to the cooler air of the finca though and met my extended host family - Olga Lucia's sisters, brother and mother, along with a brother-in-law, sister-in-law and nieces and nephew too. We felt even better after our trek to a nearby waterfall to splash about in the refreshing water there and when we got back we were greeted by an amazing lunch of steak, yuca, potatoes, guacamole, plantain and chorizo - delicious! Afterwards we enjoyed a game or three of Rana - a traditional Colombian game that involves throwing small metal hoops at a box with holes in, each hole leads to a drawer marked with different points, the aim of the game is to score as many points as possible.

The last week has been a continuation of the routine I've already mentioned: working, attending dance classes, getting to know Ibagué a little better. On Friday, Carole, Karin and I had a quiet night in with pizza, sweets and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on the TV. Then yesterday Karin and I met up with two Colombianos and after a drive of over an hour we ended up trekking through a jungle in the rain to get to a set waterfalls and pools that we bathed in as the rain fell down around us, getting heavier and heavier. We sat on rocks overlooking the falls as thunder boomed and lightning flared, watching as the water flowing over the falls increased in speed and volume. Our clothes and shoes were soaked, as were our towels and pretty much everything we'd brought with us, so we walked back through the jungle in our swimsuits.
Afterwards we sat in the car eating sandwiches and on the drive back the sun came out and I spotted a rainbow. When I got home I had a lovely, hot shower and sat on my balcony watching the sun set over Ibagué.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bogotá, Colombia (dos)

As well as sight-seeing, I was in Bogotá to meet the other volunteers on the ICYE programme, take Spanish lessons, and find out more about Colombia and the project I would be working on. After a day of rest and getting to know my temporary host family in Bogotá, I met the other volunteers for the first time and all 26 of us went to La Mesa, Cundinamarca, about a four hour drive from Bogotá for our introductory camp.

This was the first time I had met any of the volunteers including those from the UK as I had already flown to Argentina when our national introductory camp took place, so I was slightly intimidated, but I figured we'd all be on the same wave-length and would get on well, and it turns out we were! By coincidence one of the first people I met and spoke to properly was Karin, who is also volunteering and living in Ibagué. We sat next to each other on the coach to La Mesa and had a nice natter, so that was a good start to the trip.

Over the next few days I got to know the rest of the group, as well as the UK there are also volunteers from Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, the US and a whole load of Germans! I'm one of only three or four volunteers who is staying for six months, the rest are here for a year. The majority of us are working with children or young people, about half the group of volunteers remain in Bogotá, the rest of us are scattered across the country:

I stayed in Bogotá for just over three weeks and whilst there I was introduced to some of the culinary staples in Colombian life, including tinto; Colombian coffee, which is mild, and usually drunk black sweetened with lots of sugar, as well as food, and lots of it! Colombians eat a lot of rice (more than the Iranians!) and it is usually accompanied by meat, potatos and yuca, a potato-like carb and very tasty. To drink, usually it's fresh fruit juice, mixed in either water or milk (I prefer in water, it's more refreshing). Along with all the standard fruits Colombia also has many delicious, tropical fruits native to the country, including guanábana, lulo, pitaya and granadilla, and they all taste sublime, particularly as juices.

Then there's aguardiente; this is the essential drink on a night out in Colombia (I've heard it's rivalled by rum on the Caribbean coast, I guess I'll find out when I visit over New Year's!) and if you don't like it, tough luck as there's not much else to choose from! Aguardiente tastes a bit like sambuca but less sweet and not as strong. When you buy it, in a shop or bar, you're given the bottle and a stack of plastic shot glasses correspondeing to however many of you there are drinking it, if you're lucky you might also get some slices of orange to suck on afterwards. Usually though it's taken straight and you just shot it, all night long!

And of course, on a night out in Colombia there is the dancing. There are so many types of dances - salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton, etc - and most Colombians seem to be born with the innate ability of knowing them all and looking ridiculously good whilst dancing them. (Seriously, they are so good at dancing here! I consider myself an above-average dancer in the UK; here, I'm a stumbling idiot.) Our first weekend in Bogotá we ended up at a salsa club and had the chance to try out the basic steps we'd been shown at the introductory camp on an unsuspecting public. I'm definitely getting better at it but it's hard to remember all the steps along with getting used to dancing with a partner and trying not to step on their toes!

There are so many differences in Colombia to the UK that aren't necessarily obvious at first glance and that I'm only just beginning to realise, I hope to be able to tell you all about them over the next few months. On the whole the differences are positive, in particular the extremely welcoming and generous attitude of most Colombians to visitors to their country, I already feel so at home, it's strange to think I've only been here six weeks!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bogotá, Colombia (uno)

Landing in Bogotá was a very strange feeling, after three months of travelling and basically doing what I liked, here I was getting ready to volunteer for six months in a country I'd never been to and in a language I could only just get by in. The drive from the airport to the apartment I'd be staying in really surprised me, I don't know what I was expecting but what I was seeing certainly wasn't it: wide concrete autopistas and fly-overs, huge shopping centres and multiplexes, and large plazas; Bogotá is a massive, modern and incredibly vibrant city. I discovered just how true this was over the three and half weeks I lived in Bogotá, using the (sometimes incredibly effective and sometimes frustratingly slow) TransMilenio system to travel around, I barely scraped the surface of the city and even areas that I visited a few times still feel unexplored to me now.

The area I probably visited most was the tourist area of La Candelaria, a relatively small area compared to the vastness of Bogotá but nevertheless overflowing with musuems, galleries, and historical and government buildings. Probably the most famous landmark (and the one I always imagined when I thought of travelling to Bogotá) is Plaza Bolivar, the site of the Cathedral, the Palace of Justice, the office of the Mayor of Bogotá and the National Congress, and like seemingly every large plaza in major South America cities I've encountered so far, overrun with pigeons.
I saw the plaza in most of the changeable weathers that Bogotá offers, including pouring rain, drizzle, grey skies and sunny; it was impressive in all of them.

Also in La Candelaria is the Museo del Oro, a fascinating museum filled with thousands of gold pieces from the cultures that existed in Colombia and the surrounding areas before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

A short walking distance from Plaza Bolivar and the Museo del Oro is the Museo Botero, which although I visited two or three times, still didn't manage to see all the art work that was on display. If you look up the road that the Museo is on and to the mountains beyond, you can see the peak of Monserrate and the church atop it. Monserrate and it's neighbouring peak of Guadalupe are constants over the city and mark the eastern borders.

Monserrate from the Museo Botero:

The view of Bogotá from Monserrate:

Monserrate was beautiful, particularly the view as the sun was going down and all the lights in the city gradually came flickering on. From up there you could see just how massive Bogotá really is, the city stretched out further than the eye could see to the west and north, and far up the foothills of the mountains to the south and east.

Monday, August 22, 2011

La Paz, Bolivia

Our next destination in Bolivia was La Paz. We entered the city from El Alto (4,2000m!) at sunrise, with candy-floss coloured clouds, Mt. Illimani in the background and the city glittering below us in the early morning sun; just stunning! I saw the view of La Paz from El Alto a few more times during my time there and it never ceased to be anything less than amazing, the city clings to the edges of the valley and everything looks tiny, like little lego buildings. The extremely high altitude (the city proper is about 3,650m) makes it difficult to gather the energy to do much though, especially during the first few days, and I have to admit I don't think I made the most of La Paz. Still, we managed to see some of the sights, including El Alto market, which had fantastic views over the city, Plaza Murillo and San Francisco cathedral.

In La Paz we stayed at the Wild Rover (of course) for the first few days, which has very comfy beds, and a party atmosphere which we enjoyed on the first couple of nights and then quite quickly got bored of. It did give us the opportunity though to dress nicely for the first time in what felt like months, and our first night involved playing pool with men dressed as various farmyard animals, lots of Black and White Russians, and good times.

We mostly used La Paz as a base to see other places nearby and the two main trips we made were to Tiwanaku and Copacabana, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca:

Tiwanaku is the site of the remains of a massive pre-Incan civilisation, running for about 3,000 years from about 1,000 years BC up to around the 1500s, from what I remember of our guided tour. There were a lot of interesting monoliths, (one massive one around 8ft tall that unfortunately we couldn't take photos of, but it was pretty bloody impressive I can tell you!) and a rather boring museum that was made quite fascinating by our rather excellent tour guide. Tiwanaku is also where I got the inspiration for my tattoo of a chakana, (also known as an Incan cross but if you were paying attention earlier you'll remember that Tiwanaku is pre-Incan) a symbol in Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador for the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Copacabana was the last day Sophie and I spent together so it was somewhat bittersweet, but we had a nice time wandering around the city, visiting the cathedral, wandering the markets and going out on Lake Titicaca in a pedalo, no less!

Salar de Uyuni / Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivia was breath-takingly beautiful, partly because of the altitude (we were never lower than 2.5km above sea-level in any one place, and in some over 4km!) the mere proximity to the sky meant that the skies were always the brightest blue you could imagine, and the sunlight was harsher making all the colours clearer and more vibrant. I really did feel like I was on top of the world, particularly when we were travelling by bus between towns and cities, we'd just be surrounded by a vast plateau of arid land, ringed in the distance by snow-topped mountains, and barely any signs of habitation for miles and miles.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, some thousand kilometres wide, and we drove through it and on it for hours and hours, until you were almost blinded by the endless whiteness of it. Sophie and I had fun attempting the perspective shots on the flats but we were pretty rubbish at it and soon got bored, questioning whethere doing the two-day trip over the one-day had been a good idea. Our arrival at our hostel at the base of Tunupa volcano bordering on the flats soon silenced our questions, the view of the flats in contrast to the sparse grass of the volcano was stunning, and the volcano itself was also an awesome sight, with a caldera of deep red fringed with snow. We also saw some flamingos!! They were feeding at the edge of the flats and they were even brighter pink than I'd imagined.

We somehow managed to survive our night out on the flats (OK, we were in a hostel but we may as well have been outside it was that cold!) and the next day our group attempted the trek up the volcano. Out of the six of us only two made it to the top, Soph and I had to stop first as the altitude made breathing incredibly difficult so we decided to head back to the car and ended up having to be rescured by the other two members of our group who gave up the climb, as there was a herd of rather intimidating llamas! After this embarassing incident we headed to the Isla de Pescada for some more great views of the flats and lots of cacti, and then headed back to Uyuni to catch our overnight bus to Sucre.

Sucre was lovely, with such beautiful buildings and a really laid-back atmosphere. We didn't really get up to much, we frequented cafes and ate a lot of good food, wandered around and sun-bathed. As it was about 1,000m lower than Uyuni the weather was sunny and warm and it was really soothing after the rawness of the salar. I don't know what else to say about Sucre, it was just a really nice place, and Sophie and I both agreed that it was the place we'd want to visit again most in Bolivia.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mendoza / Salta, Argentina

Full of wide, tree-lined streets, plazas large and small and set against the unreal backdrop of the Andes which rise out of the flat Argentinean pampas like a cardboard cut-out, Mendoza is beautiful, warm, sunny, and the perfect place to relax in after the rush and roar of Buenos Aires. It is also one of the main wine-producing areas in Argentina and the city of Mendoza is surrounded by vineyards, as well as fields full of fruit and olive trees. I had the pleasure of visiting an olive-oil factory and two vineyards in Maipu, a village about 20km away from Mendoza, by bus and not bike unfortunately which was my original plan, but the bike tours started at 9am and that's too early even for me to be drinking wine! We visited a small organic bodega and a larger normal bodega although they were both small by wine-making standards producing less than 100,000 bottles per year (the bigger ones can produce over a million).

I also walked up to the top of the Cerro de La Gloria to get a better view of the mountains that I'd glimpsed on my bus ride in:

Other than the wine tour and a hike up the Cerro de la Gloria, I didn't do much in Mendoza other than hang out in the plazas and the park and read a lot, but after my last couple of weeks in BA it was just what I needed. I spent a weekend in Mendoza and then took an overnight bus to Salta, which is in the far north of Argentina and where you start seeing the proximity to the Bolivian border, particularly in terms of the food and also in the elevation, it's over 1,000m up. The weather in Salta was even better than in Mendoza and I spent a lot of time just sitting in the sun at my hostel drinking beer and wine and playing cards. I also wandered around the local market and managed a trip up the cable car to get a view of the city, which was really nice and quite peaceful.

I was planning to spend quite a few days in Salta but Argentina turned out to be more expensive than I expected and I'd been hearing lots of talk about how cheap Bolivia was, so after just three days I decided on the spur of the moment to accompany a girl, Sophie, I met at the hostel on the overnight bus to La Quiaca on the border of Argentina and cross over into Villazon in Bolivia. We've been travelling in Bolivia together since then so it turned out to be a pretty good decision!

Buenos Aires, Argentina (ocho)

My last two and a half weeks in Buenos Aires featured mostly beer, wine and late nights, plus some tequila and vodka thrown in there for good measure. I'd forgotten what hostel-living involved and thus was slightly unprepared at first, going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting up in time for breakfast and silly things like that. After a couple of days though I embraced the hostel life and had an awesome time, I met a really good group of people and together we explored the various highs and lows of night-life in Buenos Aires.

The worst experience by far was the "special" (read: rip-off) bar crawl for Bastille day, which involved walking around Palermo with a group of over a hundred drunk people to several different bars where we were given watered-down shots and encouraged to scream our thanks to the bartender. Luckily I was with some fun people and we managed to find the humour in the situation, and I spent most of the night laughing and bemused at the horrific spectacle I'd decided to take part in. However in the third bar when a young man with sick down his jumper was quickly hustled past us and outside by his friends to stagger about and throw up some more I decided it was time to leave before I lost my sense of humour.

Some of the best nights we had were just hanging out at the hostel, drinking and staying up late, but I really, really enjoyed our night at La Catedral, a large warehouse style building hung with multi-coloured fairy lights and various pieces of art, where we saw an amazing guitarist and a pretty good accordion player too. The food and drink there was also very tasty and very cheap (always a great combination) and I wish I'd hung out there more.

Another place I'd like to have visited more than once was El Bomba de Tiempo, a percussion show in another warehouse-type venue with graffiti-covered walls and EXCELLENT music.

Living near San Telmo really grew on me and I think if (when!) I go back to BA I will live there, it's my new favourite barrio! Apart from the main market street of Defensa, which is rammed every Sunday, there are other roads parallel and crossing it which seem much more interesting, filled with cafes, little galleries, bars and antique shops. It's a little grittier than Palermo but it has much more beautiful buildings with some great architectural styles all mixed up together.

My last full day in Buenos Aires I spent in true tourist-style sat on an open-top double decker bus seeing all the sights. It was bloody freezing but it was interesting to see how the different barrios are connected and how small the central part of the city is, and I got to visit the teeny-tiny Chinatown and enjoy some non-Argentinean food. I never thought I'd say this but I'm getting a little bored of steak! Not the good stuff, (we went to El Desnivel on Defensa during my last week and it was excellent,) but the bog-standard stuff they serve in every restuarant which I end up ordering because the chicken and pork here are not worth mentioning and most places rarely have fish on the menu. It's steak, pizza or pasta basically and I'm getting a little tired of all three!

El Obelisco, which was about five blocks away from my hostel, and an empty Av. 9 de Julio (very unusual and only because it was closed off for some sort of cycling event):