The Hungry Ghost of Colombia

Yes, i know, im just about to go to bed. Before I go… I’m here in Bogota, where a big hotel suite and crisp air combined with overcast skies and strong coffee seem to juice the mojo and inspire me to hit the keyboard. How do I end up here so often? I feel like the “hungry ghost” mentioned by the late Bourdain. I wander these cities, some more than others in search of something. At times I return again and again to haunt these areas, leaving pieces of myself behind. As i turn the idea over in my mind (always at night and when alone) I stumble on bits of clues as to why I do it. I am searching for authenticity. Authentic experiences, authentic interaction. I need the real. I am addicted to it. Hence why you will never see me haunting a cruise ship or an all inclusive resort. I can read a brochure and know exactly what that entails. I need something else. a kind of adventure, a kind of lust, a big fat fucking jump out of the comfort zone. Colombia in almost any iteration is dangerous. You absolutely NEED to be aware of your surroundings. As I talk to a range of people here though they say its gotten exceptionally better over the last decade.

I was never drawn to the easy places. London, Paris, Barcelona…all amazing cities in their own right with rich heritage and all quite easy to be robbed in, but also choked with loud tourists, selfies sticks and the circus that goes along with it. I don’t haunt those places, I only visit from time to time, typically for a long layover. Often to confirm my suspicions. I have a deep seated affection for visiting a place with no preconceived positive connotation and letting that place blast me with the magic. I have yet to fully unravel the mystery that lands me in certain places again and again. I can feel the urge to return. I think if I had to guess this would boil down to two primary things. People and food. the building blocks of any destination. Latin people, and the ingenuity they invest into their food/passion simply can not be overlooked, or god forbid ignored. I’ve been coming to Colombia for five years now and feel as if each city is its own country. from the coastal spots to the inner mountainous region, its really between Medellin and Bogota for me. I’ve not spent nearly as much time in Medellin as I have Bogotá simply because I have more people in Bogota and the flights go on sale more often. Each time I see fares under $300.00 I grab at least one. Sometimes up to a year in advance. “Colombia next year for a week”? of course. i’ll make it work. “Better buy two” The addiction for travel works like bread coupons, one can never have enough tickets to the promised land.

I am so moved by the people here, by the heaviness of their situation, that I started a non profit foundation this year to support the people escaping Venezuela into neighboring Colombia. Right now we are focused on artists and supporting their work but will soon expand. Knowing how my mind works, we named this effort The Andino Foundation. The Andes region encompasses Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. This gives me fertile ground to roam and search, finding the good stuff while I hopefully leave the world a bit of a better than when I found it. I have yet to grow tired of wandering. Perhaps I will slow down one day, but in the immediate future, I’m thinking quite the opposite. I’ve been so many places that have the magic, How could I not dig into these locales to the utmost extent?

The Grit

Well this is a whopping pain in the ass. I packed my gear and headed to a Starbucks here in Bogota. I know I know, how could I patronize the evil empire cause their all big and corporate and stuff. Well amidst all the evil they typically have good Wi-Fi, low chances of stabbing and despite being the coffee capital of the world, I was hankering for a chai. This location is a 10 minute walk from my spot and I decided to go. At times I dig their clever furniture and amazing views from their key locations. This time though I arrive, feeling an urge to get some things out, the overcast skies and some recent events inspiring me to hit the keyboard…But the fight with Starbucks is watching all the seats disappear while you order and wait for your beverage. Found a great spot on the third floor with a view of the park, and then…no Wi-Fi. No Starbucks network, shit just vanished. 

I venture to the second floor believing it to be a signal issue. I ask the girl at a nearby table if her Starbucks works in my toddler Spanish, and she says yes it works fine. Well shit. Mine still isn’t here. Give it five minutes, sip that dirty chai, feel that explosive rocket fuel caffeine begin to coarse through your veins like a super power.

Ah! We have arrived! Just when I began to feel a heartbeat behind my eyes the Wi-Fi network mystically appeared and we are good to roll! The network is snappy and seems stable. In our modern dopamine soaked culture its always interesting to be unplugged for a few hours/days, venturing into the unknown while the world stays plugged in. What are they saying about you? Who’s liked your cat photo, who’s talking shit about your bathing suit pic from 5 years again?!?! These mysteries need answering, and they need them now! Except they down. You reconnect and get 3-5 junk notifications (thank god a FB. Garage sale is happening near my home 5,000 miles away, what if I had missed that?!?!

I’ve wandered far and wide in this post and you might be wondering what the hell the title means. Well let me tell you. In short my thesis is that solo travel teaches you grit. That’s important because grit is absolutely unequivocally important in your life. Grit is what gets you there. Facing the fear of the unknown, and pushing ahead regardless. In a place like Bogotá you are surrounded by so much grit. Every hour off every day.  From the guy who commutes 2 hours each way to his serving gig, to the hotel staff that continually put in 12 hour days. When I get the opportunity to chat with these folks they rarely if ever complain, they are raising families, stretching budgets, dealing with heartbreak and unimaginable exhaustion. They could lay out their trials and tribulations all day, instead they invariably always tell me about their dreams. I soak it up and carry it with me all day, all week, and all the way home. I LOVE  chatting about dreams and goals and ambitions. To me that’s the lifeblood of the human experience . Dreams take grit, and Bogota is saturated with it. 

Back to Bogotá

…and here we are once again. Rainy days in the Colombian capital. moody mountain views and distant thunder. Strong dark coffee is perfect to fight the afternoon nap feelings. I arrived back in Bogota around 10:30 pm, cleared customs quick, the line was light, and full of edgy defense contractors and people visiting family. I had a contact come and grab me for the very reasonable sum of 30,000 pesos. The car was tiny and possibly a Chinese knock off of a South Korean model. Crammed into the front as non official taxis are a legal grey area we sped toward the pink zone, AKA Zona Rosa, one of the more unlikely places for gringo stabbings in the city. The driver was from Medellin, a born Paisa. We talked about how the food was better was there, Bogota was a bit cold, and Cartagena too damn hot. A very similar conversation I have with most Paisa’s I encounter in Bogota.

This mission was different, I had returned to the city laden with precious cargo. turns out the pure orgiastic consumer haven that is the United States consumes quantities of high end electronics like the world might soon end. Always onto whatever the newest item might be, north Americans fiendishly devour it. easy credit terms, lay-away, buy now, pay later, damn the consequences, we must have it! This means that all the slightly used gadgets plummet in value…until you relocate them to countries with a much different GDP.

My goal here was simple. After coming here a half dozen times and getting a feel for the country and the people here, I had started a non profit foundation, an organization to facilitate the repurposing of said electronics to this market, and repurposing them, then using the funds to help the most disadvantaged folks here. Enter the Venezuelan diaspora. I will write more about all of these efforts later. ( I know, I know, I NEED to write MORE). I can only put proverbial pen to paper when the mood strikes. Often times writing is cathartic for me, the mood strikes during times of elation, and times of eminent peril. Looking at the news headlines so far this year things are looking mighty grim. Thus perhaps the words will flow.

So here I am in Bogota, collecting stories, watching the rain, pondering my role in this big twisted red brick drenched place. I have two weeks here, and I return again next month. Continually scratching at the surface. Making a small difference here and there, hoping it makes a slight positive dent in peoples lives. I know at least some of them find my attempts at the Spanish language mixed with sign language humorous. Sometimes sharing a meal with someone, and laughing a bit is best kind of impact to have.

Bogotá in the Rain

Holy shit it’s November. I’m 24 hours returned from Bogotá and Colombia is on my mind. What is it about this place? After venturing there the first time, I knew the world simply wouldn’t be the same. For the Midwestern American imagination Colombia stirs up exotic and dangerous stories. I suppose that’s why I had to go.

The stories I have encountered there keep me coming back, as often as possible. Stories of triumph, stories of despair. Realising that there are countless questions, and no easy answers. Carrying those questions with me back to the states over the years has changed me. Travel will often do that. Our very psyche must expand to accommodate new experiences and once it does, there is no going back. You can feel your previous notions creak and fracture with these new voyages. Over time they will blown apart as the former completely yields to the way things are now.

There are a few places on this stunning planet that have had this definitive impact on me, and Colombia is one of them. I have begun to untangle these stories and sort them into what they mean. Even writing about this place has its kinds of fits and starts. Now that its snowing and a touch unforgiving outside here, the time has come to write it out.

More to come soon.

Saved by Jesus…and jetBlue

cartagenaOn most days, the majority of headlines concerning airlines read like pure disaster stories. As a semi frequent travelers, we lower our expectations to the abysmal. And lets be honest, despite certain status perks on whichever team/alliance you’re flying, they are all rather similar. For the jaunt to Colombia, I flew jetBlue for the very first time.  Coincidentally, I ended up in Colombia by an accident, or as insurance/credit card companies refer to it as…”An act of God”.

Two years ago, I booked a super cheap fare to Barbados. I was set to to visit the warm sand and inviting water of the Caribbean island in October. Turns out, a hurricane had other ideas…and a similar itenerary. My travel dates fell 2 days outside of the refund window. I was bummed. On a hail marry effort, I called jetBlue to plead my case. The customer service rep had an easy southern drawl, and I remember thinking “at least the bad news that i’m getting hosed on this run will sound pleasant.”  But she worked her magic, and instead issued me a travel voucher! I was floored! I was in the office on a Saturday, which is never the most fun, and I was ecstatic and my unexpected victory.

The voucher was good for 12 months, and I was incredibly impressed by this airline, which I had never flown and had no status or rewards with had gone above and beyond. one year can be quite a while in the world of travel, so I promptly forgot about said voucher. Until the following year, with about 30 days left to go, I smiled and remembered my good fortune. I pulled up a map of where jetBlue might fly from Detroit, and what do I see at roughly the same price?

Cartagena, Colombia. Boom. Sold.

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I had an amazing time over the weeks in Colombia. My initial dispatch from the sunny paradise, From Cartagena with love.  to making it into the majestic mountains of Medellin. Mysteries of Medellin I love Colombia. I’m excited to go back and spend more time among all the awesomeness there.

If only Colombia was easy to leave. On this particular day, this was to prove both metaphorical as well as literal. My last day in Cartagena, after pulling a muscle in my foot from many a mountain trek on my way out of Medellin.  (Colombia, Getting old, Fried chicken and Serendipity.) found me at the wonderful Hotel Centro. My flight was early afternoon, so I had time to sleep in a bit, grab breakfast, take a long shower, say a  few goodbyes and make my way to the airport.

Or not.

Uber can be a tricky service in Colombia, but I had exhausted my cash, and wanted to make it easy as possible. I realized I was running a bit late, and ordered an Uber to the airport, the app tells me my driver is 22 min away.

“Damn 22 min? its typically 5-10”

So I wait, a bit nervous about getting out of the walled city and making it to the airport on time.  With 5 min left to go, the driver sends me a message from within the app, that he can only accept cash.

Miniature disaster strikes.  What do I do? Do I hobble to an ATM, and then try and find a taxi? Do I try another Uber?

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I request a new Uber. I’m waiting outside with my backpack, in the afternoon, tense and sweating as its 92 degrees and bright. New Uber says 15 min away. Fuck.

I make it to the airport, 55 min before my flight leaves. I know that’s just kinda dumb. I’m limping, hot, and frustrated. I’m still smiling, but in more a resigned way. I make my way up to the counter, and the first attendant tells me “this flight is closed, you are too late”. I know this, and am prepared for the Armageddon options to get home. But then the person next her asks me for my passport.

He spends some time in rapid fire Spanish over his walkie talkie, stopping periodically asking me if I have checked baggage, (carry on only for life!) and other bits of logistics. after 5 min or so, my fate hanging in the balance he asks me to follow him. He prints my boarding passes/tickets.

He leads me through customs, then through security and personally walks me to the gate and deposits me at line for boarding. I have never been treated that kindly by an airline. I was astounded by this guys service. I told him it was my first time to Colombia, and my first time flying jetBlue. He smiled and asked if I enjoyed my time here…Before I could answer, he said ” When you come back, try to get to the airport a bit earlier”.

He shook my hand and left.

 

that’s when I noticed his name tag. It was Jesus.

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Cheers!

Colombia, Getting old, Fried chicken and Serendipity.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…”

Apt words to begin the plunge into Colombia. Gabriel Garcia Marquez began his famous book with these words. I’m back in the abaco cafe. My favorite in Cartagena. I’ve arrived back after ten days in the mountains, submerging myself into the glory that is Medellin. Unwrapping a few of those mysteries and getting it straightened out in my mind, and even getting some it down on paper. I wrote about the first few days in the Andes, and now that I’ve left back to the heat, it’s time to push it a bit farther.

dragging my sorry ass to the airport yesterday with my beat ass passport had me thinking. The previous days had been an enthralling digestion of the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Over the three weeks I was averaging 8-9 miles a day walking the valley as well as the mountains. Spectacular views, savage flavors, and incredible people. I fucking love the layers here. I woke up early a few days before departure and noticed my right foot felt extra tender. After showering and leaving my place I had a bit of a limp! What was this? I tried stretching and walking it off, but the heel of my right foot just ached. It throbbed with every step. This proved a true calamity! I hobbled back to the hotel to deduce I had essentially pulled a muscle. I was walking a ton more, and had brought shoes that had been through the shit so to say. I decided that I would take it easy, and head down to the Parque lleras in the evening to edit photos and get some writing in. I find this amazing trendy chic cafe. Surely I will do my best work here. This is the preconceived image. All digital nomads and creative types only work in super cool cafes and on beaches of course. I sat down, ordered a hipster inspired beverage and waited for the greatness to flow.

surely this is where the magic happens…until the rockstar looking barista informs me that they close at 7…which gave me 10 minutes to channel said magic.

Obviously that wasn’t going to happen. I packed my things quickly finished my cafe con something or other and with some difficulty limped out of there.

Where was I going to find the creative muse now? I think we fall for the myth that to do our best work we need some set that looks like it was made for a Harry Potter film. That’s bullshit. This is what you need; good WiFi, a decent seat, and a not too awful vibe. Sit down, shut up, and get it done. Rents due.

So, where do I end up?

Motherfuckin’ KFC. They had excellent WiFi, everyone there was a local, and they had Postobon. My favorite Colombian sugary beverage.

I know, but how could I do that?!

Well, because I had to get over myself. I’m getting older, and I was limping. I was hosted by the the gracious colonel Sanders for about an hour. I did what I had to do, and it was great. Finished my notebook piece, edited photos, plotted some stuff for this site and enjoyed my time. at the end of the day, I’ve realized travel…especially by country number 70, isn’t about insisting to find the top ranked/ most reviewed location. This often leads to epic disappointment. By the time I returned to my place, my friends had also returned, and invited me to sit down to catch up over beers. Perfect timing. Traveling is about the most authentic experience possible. Embrace the unknown, keep a positive outlook and have faith in serendipity.

Even when it involves fried chicken joints.

More soon to come!

 

What do you think? Leave some love!

Mysteries of Medellin

You’ve heard of this city. Netflix has made sure of it. The most commercially successful criminal of the modern age hails from this place. El patron. Pablo Escobar. His is a legacy that is inseparable from Medellin. This city exploded into fame in the 1980s as the cocaine capital of the world. Most estimates say 80% of the white powder party fuel that ended up in the USA came from the Medellin cartel. The first of the Colombian “super cartels”.

Pablo was eventually brought down in a storm of violence that ripped through Colombia. Rival cartels, paramilitary organizations, the Colombian government, as well as the the American CIA all orchestrated his downfall. That was December 1993.

25 years later, Medellin is a rapidly changing city. Is cocaine widely available and offered? Sure. It’s the same in dozens of cities across the globe.

So now what? turns out I’ve been fascinated about Colombia for quite some time. Raw beauty, enchanting people and a beat all it’s own. This week, it was time for me to leave the sunny embrace of Cartagena, for the cool mountain intrigues of Medellin. this city, although only an hour flight from Cartagena could not be more drastically different. Cartagena is distinctly Caribbean. It’s akin to an odd mashup of places like the old town in Hanoi, with a Havana twist. Busy, rhythmic and enchanting, Cartagena is easy to wrap your mind around and manage. Medellin on the other hand is a different animal all together. This city is big. The climate is much cooler, and the vibe is one of a major city on the move. Having just spent a few days here so far, I’ve been traversing this valley as much as possible. This is a place with layers. With depth and grit. The art, the people, the food, all reflect this. to start, one has to venture to the plaza Botero. Famed Medellin artist Fernando Botero is now on his 80s. His pieces are all over the world. Including this one in Cartagena. his style is modern and one of largess. The sculpture park here in Medellin is a kick ass afternoon wander. Although numerous people informed me that the park can be quite dangerous at night.

the pieces collected here represent a cross section of his work Be sure to take an afternoon and discover this plaza in the middle of the city. Enjoy a lemonade de coco, and taste this neighborhood. Bring an umbrella as it may rain for a bit. Watch the clouds roll in and take it easy for the down pour. The art scene here is indicative that this city is so much more than the single story of drugs, cartels and violence. The layers here prove amazing, as does the scenery with the mountains always in the background.

Medellin is a place I’ve barely begun to unwrap and I’m already hungry for more.

More coming soon!

From Cartagena with love.

So, now 5 days into this charmed city on the Caribbean and what have we learned? We arrived famished and eager, taking it all in and pushing forward despite all odds. What an absolute blast. This is a kick ass city. Effortlessly grand, historic, bustling and hot. Stupendously hot. This city practically pulses with a beat, salsa in nature, well into the early hours. The ceviche is fresh, bursting, addicting.

I switched it up for this run, slowed it down and dug deeper into the places I’m in. 3 weeks in Colombia should give an ample snapshot of this incredible place. A few of the benefits of this approach will be discussed here. First and foremost, I’ve been treated to an absolute dream in wandering the walled city after an epic storm.

I slept late to the rain and thunder, then ventured out to explore the famed “walled city”. This is the first Spanish settlement on the South American continent. Built to protect against Sir Francis Drake and other British pirates as the quest for new world riches began in earnest. this place bleeds history, and walking these streets is an experience in itself. No all inclusive triple sec high fructose soaked pool bar here, surrounded by people who look, talk, and act like you…leave that shit for the cruise ships. Get lost. Find something amazing.

one amazing thing I encountered is when traveling alone…do me a favor, and throw your phone in airplane mode. At this point all the wireless carriers offer day passes or data allotments…but try this for a day. Only check your phone a few times a day when WiFi is avail. Be ACTUALLY present in the moment. By face fucking your phone, and taking more pictures of your beer than drinking it, you are missing out on everything around you. Strike up conversation, engage someone, ask for directions and struggle with the language, that is the very essence of traveling. You will be pleasantly surprised by this miniature “digital detox”. Through the process above I’ve met some amazing people. Even in the few days here. By staying a bit longer, it’s allowed me to dig in deeper to the culture with the help of some local awesomeness. Case in point, a few nights ago, my buddy Alejandro and I, who I met randomly asking for directions came across an amazing couple in a local market. They decided since it was my first time in Cartagena, that I must have their favorite arepas. A matter of pride and graciousness. I didn’t need to consult trip advisor, or Facebook, or read a damn review. We walked and chatted with them for a few hours and indulged local history, cultural insight and amazing street food. when we arrived at this stand, I was the only non local there. This is exactly what it’s all about. Meet some locals, fall in love with a location. Struggle a bit, find your groove, put your phone away and enjoy.

Cartagena, it’s people, it’s architecture, history and flavor all prove intoxicating. Warm and easy, this place has it all. I leave tonight for the mountains, as they are always calling. Medellin coming up next!

No surrender, no retreat.

Welcome to Colombia!

Say what?!

Yes dear readers, we braved Iceland to tell you all about WOW air and glaciers in the previous piece, and now we have arrived in warmer climates.

Welcome to Cartagena, Colombia!

The Kelty bag and I are once again on the road. This time for the first flight on Jet Blue. The process was solid, staff friendly, and the cabins kept extra chilly…which I love! Over all thumbs up to the team at Jet Blue oh this initial run.

Colombia has long been on my list, and I’m super stoked to be here. I want to present this country over the next few weeks outside of the single story we in the USA have heard over and over again. The single story of cocaine and violence. This place is so much more than that, and I want to share all of it with you. Now, I’ve been in country a whole twelve hours, and already I need to tell you a few things. First and foremost, this, (and you) are absolute bullshit if you travel to a place and don’t make any attempt at the language. You can try to at least master “Thank you”. If I can stutter through a few failed sentences, so can you. Assuming everyone speaks English, everywhere and at all times belongs in the depths of wankerdom. The practice immediately builds walls between you and what could be a kick ass local/authentic experience.

The second is another gleaned from my personal arsenal. Airline food sucks. Duh. No point complaining about it, as it’s not getting better. What I want you to do on your next flight is decline that shit. Have some snacks so you’re not all wienery and hangry to those around you. Then when you arrive, arrive famished. Arrive famished, interested and ready. Drop your bag at your accommodation of choice, embrace that hunger, and set out on foot.

What you find, might just change your fucking life. (And no, kick literal rocks Mr. Hard Rock Cafe) get out there and take a chance. There is no better way to begin to understand a place and a culture than its food. Today, after two bags of pretzels and a sneaky Kind bar, I found this.

Absolute Caribbean glory. I chatted in broken Spanish about the menu, and the area. The owner happened to be there. There are a few options I’m stoked to try in the coming days. Carpe that fucking diem. I’m happy to report that after an early morning Detroit departure and being heinously crop dusted in Fort Lauderdale by an evil old woman, I have arrived. Logged a few miles on the shoe lace express, chatted with some locals, and now completely ceviche drunk and content I will wander this city by the moon. Painting a picture of this “gem of the Caribbean”, I hope you’re ready for more.