Monthly Archives: December 2008

What are you doing here?


Two days after the last email we caught a flight to Miami, transferred to Fort Lauderdale, flew to Kansas City then on to Seattle. Who knows why we decided to do it – when people ask us why, Azure and I end up giving totally different reasons – but we’ve decided to rearrange our trip. Instead of 3 months in Central America and 1 month in Europe, we spent 3 weeks in Colombia and are now getting ready for 3 months in one place – Southern France – visiting wineries, improving our French and traveling by scooter. It’s a vision that completely lacks the grit and adrenaline of non-Western travel, which must be what we want if we’re choosing this path.

Colombia was, we found, stunningly beautiful and totally undeserving of its dangerous international reputation. It’s silly that people in the US repeatedly warned us about a place they’d never traveled. It was, though, tiring to travel as a backpacker and that’s what ultimately persuaded me to take off and look for another method of travel in a different kind of country. My biggest regret is that we got so much good advice from people who were genuinely excited for us to go to Central America and we won’t be using it this time around. Thanks to everyone who did help, though. Neither of us believe we’ll never go to Central America, but it’s not going to happen this year.

We’re finding that in our short Colombian time we faced tons of political issues that we’ll still be thinking about years from now, so read on if you want some political rants:

– Race has to be the most powerful social force in our human world today. This was hammered home on our last day when we went from the mixed-race, dark-skinned streets of Cartagena to its airport, where every single traveler (those who could afford this method of transportation) was light-skinned. It was a different world just in the airport. Only the airport workers were darker-skinned. But we’ve seen this everywhere – in Thailand some women used makeup to look whiter, and all over the world we’ve seen advertisements that feature more people who look like Azure than like a local woman.

– What can a person actually do about poverty? Is it OK that we’re tourists where such poverty exists? Azure definitely had a hard time with this one and it’s a very, very complicated subject. Say we spend $10 on a meal for two of us. We see this as reasonable or even thrifty, but a local guy may see it as a grotesque waste of money. So then out of respect we decide to eat rice & beans and a piece of chicken for $1.50 for two. But one reward for accumulating wealth is that we don’t have to eat crappy meals, and a different local guy may wonder why we’re riding a bicycle instead of a motorcycle if we can afford it. Basically, how should one take advantage of their wealth? When I heard that Mariah Carey has a $10,000 shower curtain I thought, “I could travel for a year on that shower curtain.” An obvious answer is to not be concerned with money, but you’ve got to eat, and eating is a political act.

– We are lucky to be born in the US/West, where the government was originally built on a foundation of human rights (for its own people, anyway) and – most of the time – tries to do right by its people. The US has immense flaws, but the American & European poor have a much higher standard of living than the poor in most other places. Clearly some practices (minimum wage, food handling standards, taxation and redistribution) are good for the human population at a basic level, if done right. Development is only justifiable if a majority of people end up with a higher quality of life (when the moral standard is individual human happiness)… but…

– The trade off: we visited an indigenous tribe at 10am on a Monday morning. Where are you at 10am on a Monday? I’m usually at my first window washing job of the week. The tribe was sitting next to a stream, hanging out as a family. I’m not saying I’d trade my life for theirs right now, but I’d sure as hell trade if I were on the losing end of development. But even on the ‘winning’ end of development, our culture’s knowledge of nature has atrophied. American culture fetishizes working, and workers are lead to believe they have to stay in relationships with employers that are downright abusive when viewed from an outside perspective.

– Our (global, developed) culture decidedly values human rights as the most basic foundation of morality, the source which justifies a decision or policy (and individual rights have bled to other realms, as vegetarianism, for example). But two other moral foundations are affected when we make human rights most important. What does our culture look like if we put the health of our species (Human) above all else? What does our culture look like if we put the health of the Earth and its natural systems above the individual and above the species? “Good” does not always overlap.


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Colombian Pesos

Colombian Pesos. 2300 COL = 1 USD

20k, 1k, 50k, 5k peso notes, front and back. (We didn’t have the 2k or 10k notes available when we took these pictures).

The beautiful 5k note, with detail.

The 50k note.

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Anything I could have written would have been fake

by Azure

On Tuesday morning Mike and I hiked out of Tyrona National Park. We had spent one night in our tent (an ill-conceived idea, since we had no sleeping pads and the ground was very hard) and one night in a lighthouse-esque hut on the rocks (actually a good idea had there not been a storm that night). We were a little tired, but in good spirits as we walked the 2.5 hours out of where we were staying. A jeep ride, a taxi and a collectivo got us back to Taganga.

This trip had not felt like other trips we had taken. Perhaps it is our age or our place in life or the knowledge of what we want to do in the next few years, but I hit a wall at some point early on where I thought, “What am I doing here?” and felt that traveling in this way was keeping me from living my real life rather than advancing it. During our down time we found ourselves brainstorming new business ideas, talking about a possible future of living part time in Europe and and wanting to move forward with those ideas rather than stay and learn Spanish, see Latin America and continue on the backpacker trail (so much more on many of these topics later).

We didn’t sit down in the internet cafe thinking we would leave Colombia that day or that week, but after typing in a few options for us to fly to Panama and cut the trip short by accelerating through Central America, which would have not done it justice and would not have done justice to all the recommendations of friends and family, we decided to see what it would cost to fly from Cartagena to Miami that day. No flights. The next day $450 before taxes, too much. The day after that, Christmas, $119. Wait, what??? As it turns out, traveling on Christmas is not only easy, but cheap. We found a flight from Ft Lauderdale to Seattle with little problem and decided to just go for it. After further review, it was the cheapest and easiest option for getting home, not to mention an awesome surprise for my parents.

That night we slept in Taganga, woke up on Wednesday and headed to Cartegena. The day after that we flew home. The only people in the world who knew we were coming home were our friends Nicole, Aviva and Joe. They had all been online right after we had booked and they made a pact not to say anything. Aviva would pick us up at the airport and take us to my parents house without any warning.

It wasn’t hard keeping it a secret. There was only one day between when we booked the ticket and flew out and only one gchat with my mom, so it was easy to avoid promising what we were going to do after getting to Cartagena.

Long story short our trip consisted of:
2.5 hour hike out of Tyrona
15 min jeep ride to the main road
45 min taxi ride to Santa Marta
20 min taxi ride to Taganga
50 min collectivo ride to Santa Marta (checking the bus schedule)
50 min collectivo ride back to Taganga
40 min collectivo ride to Santa Marta
4.5 hour bus ride to Cartagena
50 minute bus ride to the center of Cartagena
20 min taxi ride to the Cartagena airport
wait 2.5 hours
2.5 hour flight from Cartagena to Miami
wait 1 hour for the bus
5 min bus to the train
wait 50 min for train
40 min train ride to Ft Lauderdale
10 min shuttle to airport
wait 1 hour
Ft Lauderdale to Kansas City 3.5 hours
wait 40 min
Kansas City to SEATTLE 4 hours
Travis (Aviva couldn’t get her car out, so she broke the pact, but it was ok) picks us up at the airport in Nicole’s car. He has delicious homemade cookies for us and drives us to my parents’ house. Once we got off the main road, we drove about a mile in compact snow and ice to my parents’ driveway. We parked and walked down the driveway in the snow.

I didn’t know what to expect coming home early. In some ways, I felt it to be a failure, but I recently had convinced myself that what we were really doing was taking responsibility for our own happiness, which itself is a very freeing experience. I knew my mom was proud that I was traveling and liked reading the blogs, so I didn’t know how she would react. I think I was kind of being an idiot here.

Anyway, we knocked on the front door. For those of you who don’t know, my parents can’t see who it is through their front door. It was late by this time, probably a little past 10 and of course they were in bed sleeping. My mom got up and asked who it was. Not wanting to say it was me, I just said, “HoHoHo” and she opened the door (okay mom, your security precautions leave a little to be desired). She looked at us and just said, “What are you guys doing?” She was so confused that she just stood there and repeated herself. She then called my dad down to see who it was. He has pretty poor eyesight in the dark in general, but also he had just woken up. He stood at the top of the stairs and sort of faked excitement and I thought he was going to go back to bad. Later he revealed that he had no idea who we were. My mom told him to come down and half way down the stairs he saw who we were and got really excited. My mom just kept asking “what are you guys doing?” (literally 5 times). Travis was still standing there and my dad went over to him and introduced himself before he realized who it was and then was excited to see him too. Both my parents were. My mom thought we had picked him up in New York or something, I don’t know.

We went up to the road and helped push Nicole’s car out of the snow and Travis was on his way safely (Thanks again, Travis!!!). My dad made a fire and we stayed up until 1am talking and eating soup and drinking hot chocolate. It is good to be back with all the snow. I have a ton to reflect on for such a short trip (only 3 weeks), but I grew and learned a lot and like I said last year, traveling each winter gives us a chance to sit back and look at the year and our lives and see how we have changed. It became immediately obvious how different I am from my previous self. More to come.


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Tayrona National Park

We had a couple very interesting experiences this weekend at Tyrona National Park.

To get to the park it’s an hour by bus from Santa Marta, then an hour hike through the jungle to the first beach where you can surprisingly get a pretty good meal. The coastline is shaped like the business end of a serrated knife cutting into the Carribean. The teeth are rocks with bays in between, and each bay a crescent of sand. We hiked another hour west – alternating between jungle and beach – until we reached Cabo San Juan, somewhere out there in the middle, and when you walk out of the jungle you see tents spread out on a wide lawn with coconut palms throwing shade and coconuts. It’s actually kinda dangerous? I heard a stat somewhere that more tourists get killed by falling coconuts than any other source. Just a stat, though. I saw one coconut actually fall, and Azure saw another, but that was it. Azure grabbed that coconut and started pounding it against a concrete step. Over the next two days we worked on it until Azure got through the husk and finally split it open, which was good because a) it tasted great and b) we no longer needed to carry a coconut with us everywhere we went.

One morning we woke up and followed signs to a ‘Pueblita’ that was somewhere up in the mountains. We put on our shoes and set off through the palms and across a stream, eventually coming to some boulders. The boulders went straight up the hill for an hour, so we climbed. We got so far up into the jungle that I started thinking, “Ok, what do I do if a puma attacks? Are there even pumas up here? How do you ask that in Spanish?” etc.

We climbed over boulders that had been made into improvised bridges, under boulders that were too big to go over, over trees with thorns on their trunks and over some nasty looking ant trails. Finally we reached the crest of the hill and the Pueblita was in front of us in this little valley where three streams came together: It was what remains of a little town. There were walls and stairs that were ancient, from the year 400, made of stone and clearly places where houses used to stand. There were paths lining the little valley and a couple foot bridges made of stone. There was an indigenous family there – you shouldn’t take pictures of them – with a dad, mom and about four kids off behind one of the raised foundations. They were sitting by the stream and the kids were running around, two of the boys were throwing rocks at each other. I imagine there are more from their tribe somewhere else, but this particular pueblita was now on the map with visitors coming, so they probably moved their town elsewhere. Az and I sat for a couple minutes to rest. The high valley was very calm and actually kind of cool even during the heat of the day. I thought it was very peaceful.

I have a lot of political opinions about this part of the trip, especially after seeing the poverty in the cities and hearing about the Inquisition (yes, that Inquisition) on this same coast, but this isn’t the place for that. I’ll probably write a blog about it soon enough.

Anyway, after descending over the boulders, over the stream, through the palms, we got a rented a hammock for the night up in this “tower” that was on a high rock out over the waves. The tower is made of wood, it’s a circle about 30 feet in diameter and about 10 hammocks are strung likes spokes on a wheel with a ceiling but no walls. We slept out there with our feet to the center, heads out toward the water.

I’ll tell you, as I was laying there when the light had gone I thought I was in heaven. The wind was blasting, and I love the wind, and the waves were roaring and we were swaying back and forth, talking in the dark on this tower above the water and I had one headphone on listening to Sigur Ros. I think it’s a special place still, but that night – last night – a storm rolled in and the winds picked up. It was howling, actually. It was blowing so hard that our hammocks’ ropes vibrated like guitar strings and it sucked the heat from our bodies and I did have fun, but who wants to have fun when they sleep? It was just too much. We spent most of the night shivering or holding on or being startled by loud bursts of air… so we didn’t sleep well despite the situation.


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Azure is reading Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry.
I just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Omnivore’s Dilemma should be required reading for all Americans.

Next book is Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.


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Travel, generally

by Mike

We’ve been having trouble figuring out what we’re actually doing traveling here – why we’re here and not another place, why we’re traveling as backpackers and not motorcyclists or living in one spot or even staying home. It seems that every year we have to come to a point where we give ourselves permission to NOT do the trip the way we’d envisioned at the beginning. When we left, we imagined spending 2 months in Colombia because that’s what we said we’d do because that’s what we said we’d do. Colombia’s nice. I’m having a good time. But it hasn’t blown us away the way Bariloche did or the scooter trip through the mountains on the Thai-Burmese border. There’s not the food of Buenos Aires or quiet of Ko Ma.

So we have to get to this point: we could either go home and hang up the traveling boots or give ourselves permission to do what we want how we want to do it, it would be pointless otherwise. Thank god we have as much time as we do. If this had been a 3-week trip there would be no room for error and we’d be frantically trying to extract some magic from a random sampling of places before the lid closes. Most places in the world aren’t too interesting or exciting, and the great experiences for us seem to be randomly so. Florianopolis would have been boring if we hadn’t been shown the Sequencia and Samba Club. Chiang Mai would have been so-so, except that we found a pool with Olympic diving platforms and spent many days there alternating between falling and reading. Those things really could be anywhere, but we wouldn’t have found them without taking enough chances to be lucky, and taking enough time to take the chances. We sift for gold.

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Pictures from Taganga


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